Relaxed state guidelines for classroom spacing likely won’t have an immediate effect

It will take some time to see how the changing state guidelines affect reopening plans that are already well underway.|

Relaxed state guidelines issued Saturday for California schools could mean some primary grades are back to full-time, in-person instruction before this academic year is out, Sonoma County Schools Superintendent Steve Herrington said.

That’s because the state has decided to align with guidance issued Friday by federal health officials, who now say masked students can sit safely 3 feet apart in class rather than 6 feet, the earlier recommended distance.

For California public school primary students, whose classes should be no larger than 24 students anyway, more proximal seating may allow entire classes to return at once, forgoing the divided cohorts that had been needed to allow for widely spaced students, Herrington said.

But it will still be several days before county and school officials have talked through the state’s weekend announcement and county Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase tailors recommendation for local schools, Herrington and others said Saturday.

There also are 40 school districts, 58 charter school and 27 private schools in the county, each with its own priorities, space constraints and labor union issues to sort through, so there was no way to predict how the new guidance would play out, officials said Saturday.

“This will be more clearly defined next week,” Herrington said.

Saturday’s midday announcement by the California Department of Public Health illustrates the ever-changing landscape against which school officials and the public in general have been trying to plot a resumption of many activities put on hold by the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom and state legislative leaders announced a $6.6 billion package that included incentives to get schools reopened by the end of month. Now, with about a week to go, the rules are changing again.

Districts around the region have for weeks been developing reopening plans, on-campus schedules, safety protocols, even traffic patterns based on guidance for 6-foot distancing.

The county’s largest district, Santa Rosa City Schools, has just muscled through weeks of negotiations on a return-to-school plan that reopens elementary schools on a hybrid schedule April 1 and 2, with secondary students returning to campus April 26 and 29.

The negotiations took so long not “because we were fighting” but “because we wanted to get it right,” Santa Rosa Teachers Association President Will Lyon said Saturday.

With a plan in place that won strong support “because it prioritizes safety,” and summer school looming without a written agreement yet, “I don’t think we have the bandwidth to negotiate” something new, he said.

Smaller schools and districts on the coast and in rural Petaluma, for instance, can be more nimble, Herrington said, and could phase quickly into full, face-to-face instruction, at least for prekindergarten through third grade.

For grades 4 to 6, where classes are larger, the calculation may be more difficult.

Additionally, the new state and federal guidelines still call for 6 feet of distance on campus outside of class, at athletic events, assemblies, lunch and choral practices.

Large districts and secondary schools, where transmission risks are different than they are for younger students, are likely to find converting the plans they already have finalized more complex.

Although Sonoma County’s move into the “red tier” on the state’s reopening scheme means schools and districts no longer require approval of their reopening plans from the county health officer, they still must post COVID-19 safety plans five days before reopening a campus.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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