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Virus surge threatens Santa Rosa’s school return plan

The return-to-school plan crafted by Sonoma County’s largest school district has run straight into the teeth of the fastest increase in coronavirus cases yet experienced in California — a surge Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday said threatens to overwhelm health care systems and could lead to “catastrophic outcomes.”

Santa Rosa City Schools, which was on the brink of advancing a return-to-school plan that would bring thousands of its youngest students back to classrooms as soon as late January, has been plunged back into the unknown as California braces for another wave of the virus.

The uncertainty is taking an increasing toll on students, families, teachers and school staff, members of the district’s Board of Trustees said Monday.

“I want to acknowledge a lot of what the comments from the public brought up: how families are struggling, and our students are struggling, and yes, indeed, the impact is real,” said Area 5 Trustee Ed Sheffield said at the school board meeting Monday.

For months, Sonoma County has been stuck in the purple tier, the most restrictive under the state’s coronavirus reopening plan. It was joined this week by the vast majority of California counties amid a resurgence of cases.

“As of this morning five Bay Area counties moved back into purple,” Sheffield said. “We are no longer alone.”

That twist has cast into doubt the return-to-school plan put forth Monday as a working document. It continues to be updated and portions are slated for negotiation with labor groups, while the board is expected to vote on the updated document at its Dec. 14 meeting.

"On December 14, based on this, it could be very much different from what we had planned,“ district Superintendent Diann Kitamura said. ”For the sake of our students, for the sake of our parents, for the sake of our staff, we still have to be ready even if it’s not January, it’s in February; even if it’s not in February and it’s March; I want to be able to bring kids back.“

The current plan calls for the district to reopen classrooms for thousands of transitional kindergarten through third graders four weeks after the county advances out of the purple tier and into the red tier, the next stage of the state’s four-step reopening plan.

Perhaps crucially, county health officials were awaiting word Tuesday about the county’s request for a waiver that could improve the county’s transmission data and therefore potentially help move the county into the red tier.

But a spike in cases locally puts even that strategy in doubt. Sonoma County recorded 223 new infections over the weekend, preventing the county from meeting a key benchmark in its quest to move from the purple. And elsewhere in California cases have surged, prompting holiday travel advisories as well as renewed restrictions on businesses, gatherings and school operations.

It’s up to the community to bring the rates of infection down enough for the county to move into the red tier and trigger the reopening of campuses for the district’s youngest students, Kitamura said.

"If we were able to open safely, we would be open,“ she said ”It’s really up to the community for the infection rate to go down."

But district officials were again hit with emotional pleas — some from teachers urging officials to keep campuses shuttered and some from parents desperate after more than six months of distance learning to see their children access a more meaningful education.

“For families in the thick of this, they don’t have time to come to these board meetings,“ said Sarah Ponsford, a mom and chairwoman of the Sonoma County Community Advisory Committee for Special Education. ”I know that the challenges are intense and that our county is in purple, but I do want to highlight, for these children, they are not receiving services, they are not receiving an education. And as a result their entire families are in crisis.“

Veronica Jordan, a mother of two elementary-aged students, urged district officials to seek practical solutions that will return kids to the classroom and a normal routine.

“The central argument for reopening schools or remaining in distance learning pits this notion of staff safety versus benefit to the children and I just want to be clear that the evidence is mounting about the harm we are causing our children,” she said, citing numerous medical journal studies.

Jordan urged the board to move faster to bring the district’s most vulnerable students back to campus at the start of the second semester on Jan. 5, followed shortly thereafter by elementary aged kids.

“We are not going to get our schools open if we wait for ideal conditions. These conditions exist nowhere in this country and will not probably for at least another year or maybe two and maybe never,” she said. “I know the teachers are scared, I get it, but we have to move beyond fear into action.”

But teachers argued that campuses are not ready for a return of staff or students.

“My experience in coming on site in a limited fashion as well as in conversations with other site teachers is the protocols that I have heard described here as being quote unquote ’in place’ are either not in place or have not been made abundantly clear to staff,” said Sierra Bradley, a fourth grade teacher at Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts.

“I encourage all of our board members and our district staff to come, do some site visits, come unannounced, come to all of our sites, see what is happening and what is in place,” she said. “Ask staff members who are on-site where the isolation room is, take a swipe of the thermometer that last week took my temperature at 84 degrees and see how clean it is. Please come see for yourself what is actually happening at your schools.”

And Susan Fries, a three-decade veteran at Biella Elementary, reminded district staff and parents that any return to the classroom will not look like it did pre-COVID.

“My greatest concern about returning before it is completely safe and all the necessary protocols have been put into place is the reality that school will look nothing like it has in the past,” she said.

She said students will still spend much of their time apart, on computers and without group projects, social events or field trips.

“I implore you as our elected leaders and our superintendent of Santa Rosa City Schools to make sure that every single stakeholder is fully aware of what COVID-era school will look like. We must do this correctly the first time. There is no margin for error,” Fries said.

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

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