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Some west county school districts are positioning to invite elementary and some middle schoolers back for in-person learning now that Sonoma County’s adjusted daily case rate has eased to below 25 per 100,000 residents for five days straight, signaled in a Feb. 10 joint press release from the county and Sonoma County Office of Education.

Because of the lowered case rate numbers, schools that teach transitional kindergarten to sixth grade (TK-6) could reopen under the purple tier i if they submit a COVID-19 Safety Plan (CSP) and receive approval by state and local health officials, according to new guidance from California’s Safe Schools for All Plan.

Reviewing the state-mandated safety plans demonstrating procedures the districts will implement to prevent viral spread could take several weeks, Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steve Herrington said.

In addition, schools that serve TK-6 grade that qualify need to have posted their approved COVID-19 Safety Plan online for a minimum of five consecutive days before reopening.

“This is certainly a hot and confusing topic,” said Nathan Myers, superintendent of the Monte Rio Union School District and principal of its only school, which serves K-8 graders.

Myers said over a Feb. 15 email that the district is sorting out the different plans required by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), the Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) and the county health department.

According to the Sonoma County Office of Education, the CSP has two parts — the COVID-19 School Guidance Checklist for state and county health department approval and the COVID-19 Prevention Program (CPP) under Cal/OSHA.

Myers said he intends to seek the school board’s approval this week for the CPP and their consideration to reopen “as soon as March 29, if county conditions warrant the possibility.” He said he is preparing the safety plan and that there is a seven-day period for the Sonoma County Department of Health Services to respond to submitted plans.

“As this is so new, most districts are getting their plans sent back for revisions, and once submitted a second time, the seven-day timeline starts over,” he said. “This is very frustrating and time consuming, especially for smaller districts like the west county districts, as we simply do not have the staffing to take on this monumental task.”

School districts also have unions to work out a reopening with. Myers said the district serving 64 students is negotiating Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with its unions.

“Our staff are super excited to see our students again but there is a fair amount of fear as well,” he said, since there are many employees and community members over the age of 60, or otherwise immunocompromised.

“Many parents are understandably nervous about reopening and some will choose to keep their children at home if we reopen,” Myers said. The superintendent said the district will send families a survey this week to find out how many are game to come back so he and staff can arrange for in-person education “as well as a similar model to our current distance learning.”

Dave Rose, superintendent of Gravenstein Union School District, said the district of 760 students hasn’t sent a reopening plan to the county health department yet, though the district’s plan is available on its website.

“We are meeting with our employee groups to establish the current level of comfort with our safety measures and to discuss the submission of a return to in-person instruction plan to the county health department,” he said.

Fort Ross Elementary School District hasn’t sent any reopening plans either, but the CSP is in the works, according to Superintendent Jennifer Dudley, principal of the district’s single school, which serves K-8 students.

“We are taking all requirements for reopening into consideration, to include facilities, PPE, tier status and vaccinations,” she said in a Feb. 16 email. Eleven students are enrolled in the district, Dudley said.

Meanwhile, Superintendent Amber Stringfellow of Oak Grove Union School District said the district of about 900 students has a submitted CSP currently under review. She said the board decided Feb. 10 to pursue a hybrid model to start March 8 if the county touches down in the red tier so students in transitional kindergarten to eighth grade could resume in-person simultaneously.

According to the county press release, schools can open up for all grades when Sonoma County has settled into the red tier for five consecutive days.

Linda Irving, superintendent of Sebastopol Union School District of 419 students from kindergarten to eighth grade, said that because the district is so small, she is writing the CSP herself and aspires to pass it on for approval by the start of next week.

Irving, also principal of Park Side School serving kindergarten to fourth graders, said the district’s CPP is board-approved and online and that the district met last week with the county health department to review the conditions for approval.

Like Myers of Monte Rio Union School District, Irving acknowledged the timeline that “starts another seven-day clock” each time the district resends the plan and the MOU with unionized employees as part of the reopening process. Teachers are examining a draft now, she said.

In the meantime, Superintendent Barbara Bickford said over email Feb. 15 that Twin Hills Union School District intends to open up March 29, “the Monday after our spring break.”

She said each of the district’s four schools, serving a total of 1,160 students altogether, have plans to reopen, but the district is making requested corrections to its safety plans now.

“Ideally, Sonoma County will be in the red tier so that Twin Hills Charter Middle School is allowed to open,” Bickford said. “The plans will be submitted for Apple Blossom School and SunRidge Charter if Sonoma County is still in the purple tier by our targeted reopen date.”

As for Guerneville School District, Superintendent Dana Pedersen said in a Feb. 16 email that the district educating 270 students in total hasn’t sent a CSP yet, but plans to do so “in the upcoming weeks for review regardless of purple or red tier status.”

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