Administration Building, March 17, 2021 (Photo Courtesy of James Hart)
By Leo Herbstman, assistant editor
Update March 18: As announced by Santa Rosa City Schools, the Santa Rosa Teachers Association has ratified the Memorandum of Understanding to return to school.
Santa Rosa City Schools aims to reopen all or most of its kindergarten through 12 grade classrooms in the month of April, according to SRCS superintendent Diann Kitamura. Elementary schools are set to return April 1 and secondary schools April 26.
California governor Gavin Newsom has pushed for a return to in person instruction, allocating $2 billion for districts if they open by April 1. Opening by April 1 does not mean every classroom or grade level. SRCS is trying to get all kindergarten through 6 grade open by then.
With Sonoma County being in the red tier according to the State of California classification system, SRCS has adopted the Return to School Plan 3.0, often referred to as “RTS,” to get students back into the classroom in a hybrid learning model. Also, with the unveiling of the new Memorandum of Understanding between the Santa Rosa Teachers Association and SRCS, reopening is closer; however, there still seem to be some issues that need resolving.
Safety measures that have to be met are underlined in the California Department of Health’s Consolidated Guidance. Implementation of these measures are being tracked through an SRCS dashboard and include having enough staffing, a modified classroom layout, adequate testing, contact tracing, cleaning protocols and updated and improved ventilation as well as Personal Protective Equipment such as face masks/shields, gloves, gowns, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, desk shields and hand washing stations. All of these measures are shown as 100 percent ready, according to the dashboard.
According to SRCS COVID-19 coordinator Kateland Weighall, “The dashboard is pretty accurate. We [had] the PPE supplies ready for March 1, and all that is left is distributing some of it.”
SRTA President Lyon said, on the other hand, that the dashboard is not totally correct. “We do not agree on the dashboard yet, but we are working together to get the dashboard ready. Also, if not everything is done on the dashboard, it is not a deal breaker,” Lyon said, adding, “It could get messy, such as one school could have to wait a week after the others go back.”
Since safety measures have in the past been a source of contention between SRTA and SRCS in regard to whether they have been met or not, the MOU says that certain SRTA members will be able to inspect the schools before they return to in person instruction to make sure every guideline has been followed.
“SRTA is going to evaluate our readiness and see if we are in compliance with all of the guidelines,” said Maria Carrillo High School assistant principal and COVID-19 liaison Albert Ettedgui. “If SRTA doesn’t approve of something, then we failed somewhere and are going to have to fix it.” Ettedgui said this is a good thing because he wants all teachers to feel safe before returning to campus.
The RTS and MOU enumerate the safety measures that have to be met to get students and teachers back into the classroom. According to Kitamura, “Safety measures would have been ready for [Kitamura’s initial reopening goal date of] March 1, and the only thing that has taken longer is teacher negotiations and site plan approval with the county.” The COVID-19 site plan is the outline of what SRCS is doing to follow state and county public health department guidelines. Kitamura added that approval of the SRCS site plan is taking longer because other schools in Sonoma County reopening sooner have a higher priority.
Originally, the goal for SRCS was to reopen K-6 classrooms by March 1. However, negotiations with the SRTA took longer than originally thought. “I think there is a lot of anxiety about the virus. We don’t know what the outcome of the virus will be, so the union is protecting members, and it has taken a while to get the agreement from both sides,” said Kitamura.
Along with safety measures, there also has to be a plan for stable groups, classrooms with no more than 16 individuals, for every grade level. Elementary school stable groups are somewhat easier because students are only in one classroom, but in secondary schools students would have to move from stable group to stable group. According to Kitamura, “The county has approved a three-stable-groups-per-day plan, and teachers can have six stable groups total.” This would mean that students in middle or high school would be split into A and B groups, and the A group would go to three periods on Monday and three on Tuesday. The B group would do so on Thursday and Friday.
According to Lyon, the tentative MOU is a good start to move forward to getting students back in the classroom, but it is not a done deal. “An agreement has been made to open up elementary schools on April 1 and secondary schools on April 26. It is not for sure.”
The tentative MOU, signed by the negotiating parties and now up for a ratifying vote by the SRTA, says that, at a minimum, the COVID-19 safety guidelines on the district dashboard have to be met. Also, teachers should have access to both vaccinations by the time they go back, but do not necessarily have to observe the two week waiting period after the second shot. Finally, Sonoma County must be in the red tier, which it is as of March 14.
According to Lyon, “Most teachers got the date March 9 for their first vaccinations, meaning the second shot would be April 6 so that would be a week off but some teachers can come in before their second shots. However, they have a right to wait until they get their second shot.”
SRTA recently surveyed teachers about going back to campus. There were 548 responses out of around 900 members, and 369 said they will go back once all safety measures are met, while 165 said they do not want to go back until a vaccine is widely available or herd immunity is reached.
Lyon said that one of the biggest problems still remaining is staffing, that there may be a shortage of substitutes and support staff for health screenings and other responsibilities of that sort. “The district will have to figure out how to get more staffing. For elementary schools it is not as hard, but for secondary schools, April 26 is a more troubling date because of staffing,” Lyon said. “We might have to hire some teachers because classes are too large so it might be at a minimum a couple of dozen substitutes because we don’t have enough right now.”
Ettedgui seemed to disagree somewhat. “I wouldn’t say there is not enough staffing. Getting people in different tasks requires coming together and putting out a need for a specific position and seeing if there are any responses. However, I don’t think we are short staffed.” He added that there may currently be vacant positions, but that it is not insurmountable to fill them.
Ettedgui also said that MCHS has the necessary supplies, either at the school or coming, and that it is a matter of setting up the safety measures, which is happening now. “Every classroom we have to redo from what we did in October following new guidelines,” Ettedgui added.
Classrooms have red or green dots arranged on floors to indicate where each student will sit so all are properly distanced. Weighall said some teachers have expressed concerns about dot placement, saying there was no way to put desks or students in some marked places. She said Deputy Superintendent Rick Edson would meet with principals to address the issue.
Ettedgui also said, “A new directive wants the middle of the desk on that dot so this changes each layout, meaning we have to redo it.”
Also required in the RTS and MOU is enough surveillance testing of staff and students. Weighall said that a deal has been made with Valencia Laboratories to get the necessary testing for schools. “We request from Valencia a certain number of test kits, and [as of now] we have thousands of them. We are ready to go completely with testing and have already tested some staff,” Weighall added.
There are still differences of opinions between the SRTA and the district but there is a commitment from both sides to try and reopen.
“I do envision us opening by April 1 K-6, but April 26 is harder to see, especially because students would only be going back 11 times,” Lyon said.
Ettedgui is more optimistic about going back to campus now than he has been in the past. “No doubt I think we can [reopen] by April 26.”
“I have had so many teachers who want to come back, and kids and teachers have pushed reopening, so I don’t know what would compel teachers to not come back if they have access to both vaccines and all the safety measures have been met,” Kitamura said.
“I am under the assumption all teachers want to come back, and I am working on making it safe because if it is not safe then there is no way they can be effective teachers,” Ettedgui said. “I believe we have everything we need: the funding, the material, the good people, the infrastructure; it’s all there.”
Ettedgui added, “Anything that the school needs to do to get ready I’ll do it. I just want students back here in person on campus.”