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The Presentation School in Sonoma earns preliminary green light to reopen classrooms

The Presentation School in Sonoma is the only school in Sonoma County to have its application to return to in-person instruction forwarded to the California Department of Public Health for final review, officials from the county Department of Health Services announced Wednesday.

Should the school receive a waiver to open classrooms, about 145 kindergarten through sixth graders would be permitted to return to campus, all while adhering to a stringent list of mandates outlined by the state, including facial coverings, social distancing, mandated staff coronavirus testing and a plan for contact tracing should someone fall ill.

“For us to be in-person is the only way,“ head of school Jacqueline Gallo said. ”I think all of the schools who applied for the waiver have that same belief that in-person learning is best. It’s incredibly important for holistic education. The social emotional well-being for our students is number one. If a kid is hungry, the are not prepared to learn. If a kid is depressed, they can’t learn.“

Because Sonoma County remains in the purple and most restrictive tier on the state’s COVID-19 classification system, area schools are prevented from returning to in-person learning without a waiver. They are only available to transitional kindergarten through sixth grade programs.

Fifteen Sonoma County schools have applied for waivers, but only The Presentation School met all of the state benchmarks and was advanced for final review. One school was rejected, one withdrew its application and 12 more applications are pending.

It was unclear Wednesday when The Presentation School could open should it receive approval.

“We have a call with the state (Thursday) and we’ll notify the school,” said county Public Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase. “Since we haven’t done this process with the state before, I’m not sure exactly how this will go, if there will be additional requirements.”

If the state approves the waiver, kindergarten through fourth graders will return to school full time, with small cohorts, modified recess plans, social distancing and daily health screening, Gallo said. Fifth and sixth grade students will be on campus in two cohorts in rotating weekly shifts.

Gallo plans to open the campus in a staggered start once given the OK from the state.

The update on some area schools’ efforts to return to the classroom comes on the heels of an announcement from Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state's Health and Human Services secretary, that California is not showing a link between the reopening of K-12 schools for in-person learning and increased coronavirus transmission. Dr. Ghaly noted that it can take time for trends or spikes in cases to emerge but expressed optimism about the outcomes.

But Ghaly’s assessment comes as Sonoma County continues to struggle with infection rates while it remains the only county in the Bay Area to be kept in the “widespread” tier of coronavirus risks. Sonoma County has the fifth-highest coronavirus transmission level in the state.

The following schools have pending applications: Harvest Christian School in Petaluma, Redwood Adventist Academy in Santa Rosa, Sonoma Country Day School in Santa Rosa, Summerfield Waldorf School in Santa Rosa, St. Eugene’s Cathedral School in Santa Rosa, St. Francis Solano School in Sonoma, St. John the Baptist Catholic School in Healdsburg, St. Vincent de Paul Elementary School in Petaluma, the Healdsburg School, the Spring Hill School in Petaluma, Victory Christian School in Santa Rosa and Windsor Christian Academy.

An application from Kashia School in Stewarts Point was withdrawn by school officials.

An application from Redwood Adventist Academy in Santa Rosa was denied for not meeting grade limitations of serving only transitional kindergarten through sixth grades.

Following a trend that has emerged throughout the state and the Bay Area, all applications considered by the county were submitted by private schools.

With requirements of testing, contact tracing, small cohorts and in some cases staggered schedules, officials anticipated that larger public schools would struggle to meet the criteria, Mase said.

“I think certainly we were worried about the potential for there to be equity issues,” she said. “This is state guidance that we are getting. The state is setting the standards and they are quite aware that there may be some equity issues with this.”

Andy Davies, head of school for the Healdsburg School, said her school’s application reflects caution and responsibility coupled with the desire to see kids mixing with other kids and their teachers again.

“I think we do a really good job with distance learning, but the students need to be able to have some kind of socially distanced and responsible interaction with both their peers and their teachers. It’s been a really, really long haul,“ she said of the shutdown since mid-March. ”The mental health and well-being not only of kids but adults since March has become very, very concerning.“

For now, Gallo said she is eagerly anticipating getting the go-ahead.

“We’ve been really confident that our reopening plan is robust and that we have not only met but exceeded the guidance by both the county and the state,“ Gallo said.

“The classrooms are ready, the teachers are prepared,” she said. “We just want to make sure that students are coming in feeling excited but also giving them the time to adjust to some of the new norms that COVID demands of us to keep everybody safe.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

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