Sonoma County school district leaders want public health input for campus reopening plans
Sonoma County’s 40 public school districts are exploring how to reopen campuses in the fall, but want more guidance from state officials and county public health experts who have yet to spell out necessary requirements for that massive undertaking.
Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steve Herrington on Friday wrote a letter to the county Department of Health Services and the Board of Supervisors, outlining several overarching questions local district leaders want answered before crafting a countywide plan to safely allow students and teachers back to classrooms.
How many students can be on campus at any given time? What sort of meal service is safe? Will everyone have to wear masks? How should physical education or recess be provided? What kind of transportation arrangements should be considered? These are among the questions Herrington posed to county elected and health officials.
Much of the county reopening conversation has so far emphasized businesses to reignite the battered local economy. That’s left area superintendents searching for answers on how to provide education and child care during the age of the coronavirus for 70,000 students whose families make up the part of the county’s workforce.
“If the county is expecting stores and business to be operational, that’s not practical if you don’t have schools open,” Herrington said. “Parents can’t go back to work without schools.”
His letter, which requested a response from local public health leaders by June 1, was sent a day after a committee of school district officials leading the reopening effort had a conference call with Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer.
Herrington said county school district officials want to craft a guiding document for schools to reopen that’s spells out specific local health recommendations. This plan would be submitted to county supervisors for approval.
So far the state has not addressed public school campus reopening outright, but Mase thinks some of the safeguards and policies for high-risk businesses in the state’s detailed plan to reboot the economy could apply.
“If the state comes out with recommendations for school reopening, we will follow suit,” the county’s top public health official said last week. “We are going to look and cast a wide net to see if there’s any other school districts anywhere really that have started opening in California. My understanding is there haven’t been, so we’ll see if there’s a model.”
Many Sonoma County districts began discussing how to return to classrooms shortly after schools were forced to close in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, and at-home instruction became the norm. Diann Kitamura, superintendent of Santa Rosa City Schools, said a district with 16,000 students and 1,600 employees requires long-term planning and community buy-in for an undertaking like this to work.
In the absence so far of health-specific instructions for schools, the county’s largest school district has looked at different campus reopening scenarios using their interpretations of the current local public health emergency order, but “we haven’t landed on anything yet,” Kitamura said.
State Superintendent of Public Education Tony Thurmond said in virtual press briefing Wednesday that the authority over when and how schools reopen still lies with local districts, breaking from a comment Gov. Gavin Newsom made last month saying schools could reopen as soon as July.