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Students are returning to Sonoma County schools, and so is the traffic

Char Wood moved to her house on Austin Way near the start of the pandemic, when students from nearby Proctor Terrace Elementary School were already home adjusting to distance learning.

About a year later, as many of those students are about to return to their campus, Wood is bracing for the bustle of years past that her neighbors have described: school staff parking along both sides of the narrow street and parents conducting mid-block drop-offs to get their kids to class on time.

“I don’t care as long as people are considerate,” Wood said. “If someone walks all over my flower beds, I’m gonna be pissed.”

Beyond the pandemic-altered campuses where thousands of Sonoma County students are returning for the first time in a year, school reopenings are set to be felt in nearby neighborhoods, in crosstown traffic and in longer rush-hour drive times, public safety officials warned this week.

“We have been using motor units and traffic units more in the school areas to remind people that school is back in session,” said Santa Rosa police Sgt. Chris Mahurin, the department spokesman. With students shuttling to and from school zones that have been quiet for a year, he said, officers will be vigilant looking for drivers who are not obeying speed limits and other traffic laws.

Traffic audits have indicated that the start of the school year boosts morning traffic across Santa Rosa by an average of 15%, said Rob Sprinkle, Santa Rosa’s deputy director of traffic engineering.

In students’ extended absence from campuses, he said, it’s likely that both they and passing drivers will be initially rusty at navigating school zones safely.

“It’s a learning curve at the beginning of every school year for people,” Sprinkle said.

So drivers, consider yourselves warned: Tickets also are likely to be on the rebound.

“I think it’s a fair assumption to make that once schools are back in session, we do additional enforcement in general in school areas, especially while kids are coming to and from school,” Mahurin said. That can lead to a spike in citations, he said.

But students’ return this spring isn’t directly comparable, because not all are heading to campus on the same days or at the same times.

Most districts have set up their hybrid learning schedules to group students into one of two cohorts at their schools. The first heads to campus on Monday and Tuesday, while the second meets Thursday and Friday. Almost all students stay home on Wednesdays.

Increased traffic in the coming weeks, Sprinkle predicted, "probably will be noticeable, but it’s not going to be overwhelming.“

The staggered schedule, however, may change, as schools adopt updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that allows more students in the classroom at once by reducing the space between them from 6 feet to 3 feet.

Ron Calloway, superintendent of the Mark West Union School District, said his district will consider increasing students from a two-day to a five-day schedule on campus. Cardinal Newman High School also plans to increase students’ on-campus time in light of the guidance by mid-April.

“All schools have their issues and congestion, but I don’t think we’re going to see the level of congestion that we typically see on day one of school,” Sprinkle said. “But I would probably expect to see that next fall if things keep going in this direction.”

But children returning to their campuses also have a much greater community impact than added traffic. Carol Lynn Weston, another resident of Austin Way, knows how frustrating the influx of commuters can be — someone even hit her car once while trying to squeeze into a space next to the curb, she said. But she also is looking forward to seeing students return to the neighborhood.

“I would normally decorate my home more for Thanksgiving or Easter for them,” Weston said. “I miss the little sweethearts. I don’t miss the parking.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

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