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  • Reopening Schools Close to Home 

    Submitted to the Press Democrat 5/26/20
    As summer arrives, the return to school in the fall is usually the last thing on the minds of students and their parents. And yet, in this unprecedented year, families are eager to know what school will look like in the fall. They want to know if campuses will reopen so that parents can return to work. They want to know what the learning conditions will be like. Perhaps most importantly, they want to know whether it will be safe. 

    Over the last month, my organization, the Sonoma County Office of Education, has worked closely with the 40 school districts of Sonoma County to plan ahead and address these questions. We will continue to work diligently throughout the summer to prepare to provide the best learning opportunities possible under these very challenging circumstances, which include social distancing constraints and looming budget cuts. While we are far from having all the answers, I would like to update you on our progress. 

    First, every school district leader hopes to re-open their campuses to students and staff in August—if it is safe to do so. School leaders recognize the enormous burden placed on parents when school cannot be open. Additionally, while schools have done an admirable job building distance learning programs from the ground up with almost no notice, we recognize that this model does not adequately serve every child. Our most vulnerable students, including those with disabilities, homeless and foster youth, and socio-economically disadvantaged children,  lose out when campuses are closed.

    We also recognize that schools play a critical role in maintaining public health within our community. More than 68,000 students attend our public schools; over 8,000 staff serve them — often in very close quarters. Reopening school campuses will require a careful, deliberate approach. 

    Schools are subject to and constrained by state and local social distancing orders. What will school look like in the fall? It is impossible to say precisely until we know what social distancing will look like then. 

    For instance, if schools are required to limit the number of children who can be in one classroom to 10 or 15,  they may be forced to offer a hybrid in-person/distance learning model where children are divided into groups and attend in-person classes only two days a week. If, instead, schools are allowed to have larger classes that practice strict social distancing, they may be able to bring all students back full time, while still offering a distance learning option to vulnerable students and staff. Each solution is imperfect and costly. There will be increased cleaning protocols and the need for more school nurses, custodians, and possibly teachers. At the same time, school districts face a cut of roughly ten percet to their base operating budgets. 

    2020 will be a year of unprecedented challenges for educators, but they are committed to the task. However, we need time to plan and get the necessary buy-in from employee unions, students, and families. While August may seem a long time away, the amount of work needed to be done to prepare for the new school year is immense.

    We can use your help. First, share your thoughts: If you are a parent or student, look for ways to share input with your local school district regarding your needs and concerns for the fall. Second, advocate for schools: call your state and national representatives. Ask them to make education a priority and provide the financial resources that schools need to make learning safe and positive. 

    Finally, schools need specific health and policy-related information from our local and state leaders as soon as possible. SCOE is advocating for this information and we hope to receive additional guidance by early June. This way, districts can work with employee unions, students, and families over the summer to make the changes needed to ensure safety when campuses finally reopen.

    Steven D. Herrington,
    Ph.D. is Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools