By Leo Herbstman, assistant editor
Santa Rosa City Schools District has decided to continue distance learning until the end of the first semester after a 7-0 vote by the board on September 16. Although the vote did not cover any time past the end of the first semester, there is a lot of uncertainty about going back to school starting in January too.
The vote followed a joint statement by county superintendent Dr. Steven Herrington and county health adviser Dr. Sundari Mase on August 19 urging school districts to prepare for distance learning until December due to current COVID-19 cases.
Sonoma County is in the purple tier classification of COVID-19 recovery, meaning the virus is widespread throughout the county and has above seven cases per 100,000 people daily according to California’s official COVID-19 website. This means that schools cannot legally open yet without a waiver signed off by Dr. Mase. The first time it would even be legal for the schools to reopen would be if the county got into the red tier, which would mean having four to seven COVID-19 cases daily per 100,000 people.
According to school board president Laurie Fong, the school board usually follows the superintendent’s recommendation. She said, “We do need to make another vote because in the future the news could be different, but testing and contact tracing is all on the schools, and the budget is $14 million in the hole.” She added that she understands not being in school is terrible and that everyone would like to go back full time but right now hybrid is what the district is trying to get to as of now. Fong also said scheduling issues and mandatory guidelines along with the liability of COVID infections will make reopening under hybrid even more difficult.
Fong also added, “I want us back in school as soon as possible and if we were in the red by December, we could go back to hybrid and those who want to stay in distance teaching could but others could go back.” However, with scheduling issues and guidelines that have to be followed along with the schools being liable for any COVID infections, there are many obstacles to surmount before returning. She says she hopes a vaccine will let schools reopen fully, but until then it will be very hard to go back.
The Santa Rosa Teachers Association, which represents teachers in the district, also supported the decision to continue distance learning until the end of the semester. SRTA president Will Lyon said: “Teachers prioritize safety first. We need reasonable assurances, enough testing, enough contact tracing, enough PPE, 16 or fewer students per class, enough spacing.” He added that even if the county got into the red tier, it would take at least two months to prepare for the hybrid model. “It could be legal but untenable to go back in.”
In order for schools to reopen under California’s reopening guidelines, there needs to be frequent testing of essential staff which is recommended to be 25 percent every two weeks, students have to be tested if they have symptoms, and if a student tests positive the school has to find anyone the person has been in contact with. Since there is no state or federal help with these procedures, the district would have enormous trouble affording all of this.
Lyon claims for all of these obstacles that the district might be doing distance learning the entire school year. There are also problems with hybrid models according to Lyon. “Hybrid is not like pre-COVID. Hybrid is not better than distance learning; kids are in masks with no contact.” Lyon added, “We have to follow the science. When we have a vaccine, it needs to be distributed and possibly a year from now with a vaccine and therapeutics so adults don’t die we could be back.”
Although the teachers union and district are seeing eye to eye, there will have to be negotiations if school is reopened. If a problem arises with regard to going back into the classroom, teachers could refuse to go in. According to Fong, “I don’t think a [teachers] strike will happen. The board listens to the union and if other districts are back to work, it’s about being rational and following the science to go back. I’m confident the union and the district will come to a rational agreement.”
Lyon agrees, saying, “Labor management relationships are better now than they have been in 20 years. We agree on safety first and don’t think there will be a strike but if the board says we open early then we would have to strike.” He added, “I think if the numbers now are the same by the October 28 vote, there would be teachers who might quit if they are told to go back.”
After the vote, there was a lot of frustration from parents and students who want schools to reopen. On Sep. 17 there was a protest for reopening schools. Jeanine Hextrum, one of the protesters and owner of Bennett Valley Montessori School, said that although the preschool was open, she was protesting for all grades to be open.
“I don’t want schools to be like prison but we need to open safely and there is a way. Students listen to their teachers and they will maintain distance.” Hextrum said.“[School] needs to come back sooner. There will be an uptick in cases, but we need to move it along.”
Also at the protest was Nicole Vice, a parent of a senior at Cardinal Newman High School. She wants schools to reopen safely with a hybrid model. With regards to teachers’ concerns, she said, “Look at people selling groceries, they are putting their lives at risk so why are they less important. If a teacher has no compromised immune system then they should do their jobs.”
In response to calls that teachers are essential and should come back, Lyon said, “We don’t treat essential workers fairly. We shouldn’t have to be at risk. If you ask teachers how many dead teachers are okay, it would be zero. We should be doing better for grocery workers but we have a stronger union.”