Sonoma County schools told to focus on hybrid reopening in August
Taking direction from legislation accompanying the state’s approximately $202 billion budget, school districts in Sonoma County are being advised to start the upcoming school year in August with a mixture of classroom and distance-learning instruction.
Schools should be prepared to reopen classrooms, at least partially, unless ordered to keep them closed by local or state health officials, Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steve Herrington said in an email advising the county’s 40 school districts on how to comply with the state’s new guidelines.
Back-to-school plans should include both classroom and distance options for students, a hybrid model that can be adjusted based on the progression of the coronavirus pandemic. But school districts should not rely on a distance-only model for students returning in the fall, Herrington said. Distance learning — panned as ineffective and disproportionately difficult for working families when schools were shuttered in mid March — is discouraged under AB 77, a trailer bill accompanying the budget, Herrington said in his email.
“Essentially, the confusing language in the bill was meant to prevent a school district from moving to a distance learning-only model, unless it was required by public health,” he wrote. “In other words, they want (districts) to make a good faith effort to reopen their campuses to students to the extent possible.”
Students and teachers returning to classrooms must maintain 6 feet of social distance under county guidelines, Herrington said. Facial coverings will be required for students 12 and older and recommended for students younger than 12. Students with high-risk health conditions will be allowed to stay home and study remotely.
But even as some, including Santa Rosa City Schools, were advancing in their planning for a hybrid-based reopening, key questions remain. Santa Rosa officials on Friday were awaiting legal advice or an update on any changes to the bill’s wording around whether a district would lose state funding should a family opt for a full distance learning program instead of a hybrid model.
“The law states that there are only two reasons that you can go to distance learning — one, if it’s ordered by the state or county, and two, if you are medically fragile,” said Santa Rosa City Schools Superintendent Diann Kitamura. “What that means for Santa Rosa City Schools, and really for all schools, to the greatest extent possible the Legislature wants us to start with in-person learning in a hybrid model, knowing that depending on what the virus does … we could, by the time school starts … have to go to distance learning.”
The question over state funding for those who may opt to stay home is crucial for districts.
As many as 15% to 20% percent of families in Santa Rosa’s 16,000-student district have indicated they may opt for a distance-only model when school starts, Kitamura said.
“I’m certainly having legal counsel help us unpack it,” she said. “It’s really critical. If you do not comply with their legislation — that is confusing — then we will not be held harmless in terms of (funding based on daily attendance).”
That said, Kitamura said the district is now preparing to open schools with a part in-class, part distance structure. A 220-member group of teachers, administrators, students and others have submitted guidance that is being boiled down this weekend before being used as a roadmap when district officials meet next week with unions representing teachers and classified staff. The goal remains to get a reopening plan to the board of trustees at their July 8 meeting.
Santa Rosa schools are scheduled to start Aug. 13 but that could be pushed back if a series of professional development days — focused on the implementation of both hybrid and distance models — are scheduled.
“The public, they want to know. I know that parents need to plan and teachers need to plan,” Kitamura said. “I am hopeful that we will be able to get (union agreements) hammered out.”
But concern remains as the county continues to struggle to slow the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus. Schools are a central piece to the reopening of the economy, but many parents and educators are expressing worry that if not handled correctly, the resumption of school could spur a spike in COVID-19 cases.
Also in the mix are families, many of them with parents who never stopped working or who must return to work and use the school system as day care for their children. Many of these parents are desperate for schools to be fully operational in August.