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Sonoma County colleges, public schools extend campus closures due to coronavirus

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Colleges and public school districts in Sonoma County have decided to extend campus closures for the rest of the school year to curb the spread of the coronavirus, keeping distance instruction in place to teach more than 100,000 students.

The Sonoma County Office of Education said Wednesday all 40 county school district superintendents would follow a directive from Gov. Gavin Newsom, who said schools should remain closed to help stifle transmission of the infectious disease in order to help prevent hospitals from getting overwhelmed with virus patients.

Newsom stopped short of an executive order that would have forced every school district statewide to comply, but “it seems everybody is on board,” said Jamie Hansen, spokeswoman for the county education agency.

Suspending in-person classes for the rest of the semester affects the 69,734 students enrolled in public schools countywide, as well as the more than 31,000  combined student population at Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University. Leaders of the two colleges made their own decisions on campus shutdown extensions through the semester.

Steve Herrington, superintendent of the county education office, said closing schools takes a toll on the social and emotional development of youth, who rely on the classroom interaction for a sense of community. And for Sonoma County students in particular, it’s another blow after years of recurring disruptions caused by natural disasters.

“It’s a great academic loss. There’s no doubt about it,” Herrington said of the decision to stay closed and continue at-home instruction. “You can only approach certain things online. … These students of Sonoma County, they have gone through the Tubbs fire, the Kincade fire, the (Russian River) floods, the power outages, the air quality days. Now this.”

Santa Rosa City Schools, the largest district in the county, alerted families it was following the governor’s advice. District Superintendent Diann Kitamura described social distancing practices — staying at least 6 feet from another person — as the best method for fighting COVID-19, the sometimes fatal illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

The district, which includes 16,000 students and employs 1,800 people, also said school spring proms would be rescheduled. And education officials are now seeking suggestions from the community on how best to handle graduation ceremonies.

Kitamura said her “heart absolutely aches” for seniors whose already tumultuous high school tenure now has been upended again right before the finish line.

“I felt it’s important we follow the order, but I also think it’s important to give parents and students an avenue to share their thoughts and feelings,” she said of graduation. “There could be an idea we’re not even thinking about that could come from the students. I’m open to that.”

School districts are continuing to expand at-home learning capabilities by providing more students with laptops, Wi-Fi access and paper assignments by mail.

An agreement between numerous school labor organizations also was announced Wednesday to ensure remote instruction can be provided for all public school students, including those with special needs and English learners. The state has partnered with Google, and the technology giant will be donating thousands of laptops and providing 100,000 mobile hot spots to help the rural corners of the state gain vital internet access.

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Santa Rosa Junior College, which has more than 22,000 students at its campuses in Santa Rosa and Petaluma, announced Wednesday morning it would extend campus closures and continue teaching at a distance for the rest of the school year.

After almost two weeks off, SRJC students resumed classes Monday in a remote setting for the first time. College President Frank Chong had canceled all classes and suspended school services following spring break, which ended March 22. Faculty members were directed to use last week as an opportunity to adapt to teaching classes via remote instruction.

In a statement Wednesday, Chong asked the community to stay off of campus properties during the closure, including athletic fields and outdoor spaces.

“SRJC is typically a place where people can connect during times of crisis,” Chong said. “But now, the best way we can support one another is to remain at a safe distance.”

Operations at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park have been reduced to a skeleton crew, with its venture into virtual learning well underway. On March 19, the university suspended in-person classes for the rest of the semester.

Roughly a third of its 9,200 students live on campus, although most have moved out and returned home, university spokesman Paul Gullixson said.

Students will be refunded for housing and meal plans, he said.

The junior college has begun exploring several options for a graduation ceremony, including a remote commencement using video, but a decision on which way the school will go is still a few weeks away, SRJC spokeswoman Erin Bricker said.

SSU already postponed its mid-May graduation and has not set a makeup date, Gullixson said.

“We’re aware some universities are trying to come up with virtual commencements,” he said. “We’re looking at all options at this point.”

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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