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Santa Rosa City Schools officially OKs online start

Santa Rosa City Schools made official late Wednesday what was ordered by Gov. Gavin Newsom last week: All of the district’s approximately 16,000 students will start the school year Aug. 17 with online-only classes.

The 7-0 vote was both expected and nearly ceremonial after Newsom declared last week that no schools in counties on the state’s coronavirus watch list can open for in-person instruction until they have been off the watch list for 14 consecutive days. Sonoma County was placed on the list July 10.

Two days before Newsom’s announcement, Santa Rosa City Schools Superintendent Diann Kitamura sent an email to parents indicating the district would not offer in-person classes in the opening weeks of school but would re-assess by Oct. 9.

“This is not our choice to go to distance learning,” an emotional Kitamura said Wednesday night. “But it’s something we have to do at this point in time.”

Twenty-two people have died of COVID-19 in Sonoma County, 17 of them since June 28.

Officials conceded the shortcomings of the distance learning model rolled out nearly overnight to students in March and vowed it would not be replicated when school begins in the fall.

“All school districts in California must look at the way we are delivering instruction and engaging students differently than in the spring,” Kitamura said. “As a reminder, we had very little time to go into distance learning. This is not anybody fault. We had basically a week’s notice. We did the best we could.”

In tandem with approving the 81-page return-to-school plan, the board also unanimously approved working agreements with unions for both teachers and classified staff, covering unprecedented changes to the structure of the school day and how lessons are delivered.

The memorandum of understanding with the teachers union received 95% approval with almost 69% of its 900 members weighing in, according to president Will Lyon.

“It’s really clear that the right thing to do right now, until we can do a better job of controlling the virus, is to stay out until it is safe and it just isn’t safe now,” he said.

Targeting Oct. 9 to re-examine safety issues and the viability of returning to classroom instruction is smart, he said.

"(It) makes a lot of sense,“ he said. ”It gives us a chance to get our feet wet and we’ll reassess.“

But parents expressed frustration Wednesday with both what was deemed a minimalist structure of the online learning day and the district’s commitment to remain in distance learning until at least early October, regardless if the county emerges from the state watch list.

“Why is it that we are already making a determination today as to whether kids can be on campus when we haven’t even looked at the data to determine when and if we will be off the watch list?” said Kelley Sbarbaro, a mother of two students in the district.

The district’s timeline — as well as the Santa Rosa Teachers Association non-binding resolution asking the district not to re-open classrooms until the county has had 14 consecutive days of no new coronavirus cases — runs counter to language in the state’s budget trailer bills, which puts priority on in-person learning to the extent possible, Sbarbaro argued.

Kitamura acknowledged the anxiety and anger felt by some parents desperate to have their children return to school. She also recognized that for many, distance learning as delivered in the spring under trying circumstances, was a failure.

“There is nothing more that our teachers, that we as administrators, want than having our kids in school. This is probably some of the most painful times for people who truly love education and love kids,” she said. “Please, all of you ... who are so angry at us for not opening up the schools for hybrid or in-person (instruction), if we could we would do it in a heartbeat. But the truth of the matter is we cannot because it is not safe to do so.”

Only weeks ago district officials focused on offering students a two days on, three days off hybrid option in actual classrooms. That plan was put on hold as COVID-19 cases mounted.

Still, Kitamura said the district — the county’s largest — was obligated to make a call that prioritized student and staff safety while allowing families, staff and teachers to prepare.

“We are not going move kids back and forth in and out of remote learning and hybrid learning,” she said.

District officials sent emails to families on Wednesday outlining the two models being offered students: a traditional schedule called distance learning, which keeps students with their home campus teachers; and a project-based model called “Learning House,” in which students may be teamed with peers and teachers from a variety of campuses.

The deadline for selection is Aug. 3.

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

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