SRCS’s challenges continue with regard to reopening schools

Image from the Santa Rosa City Schools website

by Leo Herbstman, assistant editor

Santa Rosa City Schools is not going to reopen campuses by March 1. Although COVID infections are below 25 new cases per 100,000 per day for a seven day average according to the Sonoma County Department of Health, the California requirement for reopening classrooms for kindergarten through 8th grade, slow vaccine distribution and disagreements over schools’ readiness are causing delays.

To reopen, the Santa Rosa Teachers Association, the local union chapter representing teachers in the district, and SRCS have to agree on a new Memorandum of Understanding. Right now, SRTA and SRCS disagree on whether schools are ready for reopening, and vaccine distribution for all teachers is still weeks from being finished.

“I wouldn’t say it has gone smoothly, and I wouldn’t say it is contentious. I would say everybody is doing the best from their position,” SRCS board president Laurie Fong stated with regard to the negotiations. 

According to SRTA President Will Lyon, at minimum teachers have to be vaccinated and the safety guidelines set forth by the State of California in the Safe Schools For All Plan have to be met. Lyon added, “Even if we take the vaccines, we would not go in right away if the safety measures are not met. Vaccines alone are not enough to get us in. The virus is still out of control.”

“Even if we take the vaccines, we would not go in right away if the safety measures are not met. Vaccines alone are not enough to get us in. The virus is still out of control.”

With cases having risen throughout the fall semester, students in SRCS, except for some private schools, special education students and language learners, have not been approved to attend school on-campus all year. There has been a rise of failing grades and anxiety for students reported throughout that time period, and as a result, California governor Gavin Newsom came out with his Safe Schools For All Plan in December, calling for schools to reopen campuses by March 1 and providing  $2 billion to schools to help meet that goal. The two main requirements according to the plan are that safety guidelines be met and that teachers be prioritized for vaccination throughout the spring of 2021.

“March 1 is not going to happen considering vaccine distribution takes six weeks,” Lyon said. 

Fong said she was not confident schools would reopen by March 1 either. She added, “Many parents are pushing us to reopen, and internal surveys are saying, we think, around 60 percent would send their kids back.”

Lyon added, “I feel [the parents’] pain and they are right, far too many students are not succeeding, but we have to wait until it is safe. Hybrid does not solve all of the problems, and if someone dies, it is not good for the students mental health either.” 

The guidelines that have to be met under the Safe Schools For All Plan are daily screening of students and staff before they enter a school or bus, procedures for isolating students, procedures for screening and distancing on the bus, face coverings and social distancing at all times on campus, regular testing of students and staff, contact tracing, signs establishing six feet of distancing, frequent disinfection of surfaces, personal protective equipment for staff and heating/ventilation/air-conditioning upgrades where needed. The district and teachers disagree over whether these guidelines are already in place.

According to Fong, “Absolutely most [state] health measures are in place, and everything is ready to reopen. We have the isolation room, contact tracing, tests have been ordered and ventilation has been checked.” She added, “Being ready to reopen will depend on the virus, [intensive care unit] bed capacity and vaccines.”

“President Fong is wrong that requirements are met,” Lyon said. Some of the simple guidelines have been, he added, but “not the cohorts, not the human resource logistics, not the contact tracing and not the testing.”

According to a presentation by SRCS superintendent Diann Kitamura at the January 27 board meeting, there has been an agreement for testing of students and staff through Valencia Laboratories, and at least for kindergarten through 3rd-grade classrooms, plans have been made to separate students into the properly sized cohorts.

SRCS has a dashboard tracking readiness to reopen that reports kindergarten through 6th grade cohorts have been rostered. As of Feb. 21, the dashboard shows supplies such as disinfectant wipes, gloves, hand washing stations and gowns have been procured but not distributed. Many items, such as isolation tents, surveillance testing of staff and students and quarantine protocols are listed as “in progress.” 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated guidance for reopening school campuses that includes the correct use of masks, physical distancing and cohorts, cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities with improved ventilation, consistent handwashing and testing and contact tracing, but that does not include the requirement that teachers be vaccinated.

Responding to the updated CDC guidance, Lyon said, “Right now we don’t have the proper mitigation efforts. Safety is a feeling as well, and you cannot measure it on a dashboard.”

“Right now we don’t have the proper mitigation efforts. Safety is a feeling as well, and you cannot measure it on a dashboard.”

Both Lyon and Fong are hopeful that by April and May elementary and maybe middle school can come back, but Lyon expressed doubt that high schools would return.

For months, the assumption of MCHS administration while planning was that each room could contain up to 16 students. However, there is some question as to whether there would be enough room to maintain recommended social distancing in classrooms with 16 students, which would mean the limit may have to be set at 15 students plus the one teacher. For elementary schools, this requirement is not as big a challenge since students mostly have only one class, but for secondary schools, most students have at least three classes per day. 

“The issue for reopening secondary schools right now is a cohort issue since the CDC does not account for moving from class to class,” according to MCHS principal Katie Barr. She said the guidelines written for purple and red tiers call for up to 16 students in each cohort, but the administration did not consider they might have to go to 15 students, which would require an entire replanning of the schedule.

Barr added, “We would need more teachers than we have currently. We wouldn’t have enough classrooms for students to get more than one day a week on in person learning, and it would still be four days of asynchronous learning.” She says she keeps hope alive for the reopening of MCHS, but considering current guidelines, the chance of reopening is limited right now.

In terms of the safety measures, Barr said that MCHS has everything it needs and that arranging a return is really more dependent on classroom sizes and case numbers at this point.

However, Lyon does not agree. According to him, “Teachers are eager to get back in school when it is safe, and we don’t feel safe.”

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