District and union officials met Thursday to begin negotiating an update to an agreement inked last summer that set standards for how, and under what conditions, teachers, nurses, counselors and others will return to in-person instruction amid the coronavirus pandemic. While district officials have said they’ll be ready to reopen classrooms March 1, many of those standards have not yet been met, according to labor leaders.
The outcome of the negotiations — and the success or failure of efforts to reduce the rate of COVID infections in Sonoma County — are crucial pieces to returning the district’s nearly 15,700 students and 1,600 staff to campus.
As it stands, schools in Sonoma County are prevented by state guidelines from returning their youngest students to the classroom until there are fewer than 25 new COVID cases a day per 100,000 residents. Middle and high school students cannot come back to campus until there are 7 or fewer new cases a day per 100,000 residents. As of Wednesday, the county’s case rate was 42.8.
Still, Santa Rosa Superintendent Diann Kitamura told school trustees at the district’s regular school board meeting Wednesday that district officials would have all of the pieces in place to meet Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Safe Schools For All requirements in order to reopen campuses by the state’s target date of March 1.
“Can we bring kids back actually, physically by March 1? I just don’t know,” she said. “What I have control over is Santa Rosa City Schools being ready to open March 1.“
Getting teachers on board is a crucial piece of that.
In an internal poll conducted last week by the 900-member Santa Rosa Teachers Association, 84% of the 308 respondents answered “No,” to the prompt: “I feel ready to go back right now,” according to association president Will Lyon.
Additionally, 36% said they would refuse to return to the classroom if “directed to begin in-person learning now.” More than 4 in 10 said they would return, 17.5% said they would take a leave of absence and the remaining 4.5% were split between resigning and retirement.
“Safety can’t be measured on a dashboard. It’s in your heart, it’s in your bones. You feel it,” Lyon said. “If a teacher doesn’t feel safe, we can’t make them go in. Our goal is to make them feel safe.”
Vaccinations, which could begin as early as Monday for some school staff across the county, play a significant role in increasing educators’ willingness to return to school, Lyon told board members Wednesday. But the vaccination rollout locally, as it has across the state and nation, has been slowed by confusion and insufficient supply.
On Tuesday, Newsom warned that classrooms would not reopen this academic year if every teacher in the state must be vaccinated first, according to Politico.
“If everybody has to be vaccinated, we might as well just tell people the truth: there will be no in-person instruction in the state of California. Just tell them the truth. Don’t mislead people,” Newsom told the Association of California School Administrators. “If vaccinations is the absolute, then maybe we should be having a different conversation with the people of the state of California and parents.”
The renewed talks between district officials and teachers comes amid yet another round of public comment from parents, some deeply emotional, who urged district officials to be ready to open classrooms the moment the county’s virus numbers hit the state-mandated target.
“As a former teacher I certainly understand why teachers are nervous to return to school and I hope that conversation with them continues,” said Natalie Hoytt, mom of a transitional kindergartner. “Our goal this year was that she could make a friend. She’s so lonely. She hasn’t played with another child for a year now.”
Patrick Bailey, whose son attends transitional kindergarten in the district, said he attended an SRTA webinar outlining the union’s stance on returning to school Tuesday night but noted it fell on the same evening as a school-sponsored mental health support program.
“The SRTA return-to-school webinar occurred at the same time that my son’s school was giving a seminar on suicide and self-harm ideation,” he said. “What can you say about that?”
“It’s wrenching. It’s wrenching,” board president Laurie Fong said at the conclusion of nearly an hour of emotional public comment.
As labor and district negotiators meet to rework the return-to-school agreement, district staff and site employees are touring campuses to confer on safety thresholds and whether or not requirements are being met. Under state guidelines, schools are required to have isolation rooms, sanitation stations, entrance and exit plans, and some barriers in high-traffic areas like offices.
“I’m glad to say that the district nurses, SRTA, union leaders, management have begun the process of visiting sites together,” Kitamura said. “This was kind of what president Lyon was speaking to — coming together to review sites and ensuring that the rooms are as you want them to be and we want them to be.”
But in recent weeks teachers have raised concerns over the district’s readiness, contending officials have said sites and procedures are further along than they actually are. On Tuesday at the union’s webinar, Lyon questioned the district’s reporting of coronavirus transmission.
“We really believe that there are more transmissions than are reported,” he said. “We are worried that if we rely too heavily on the amount of the officially transmitted cases, we won’t have the full picture.”
Both the teachers union and the district have their own coronavirus dashboards meant to show where the district stands on myriad health and safety requirements. On Wednesday Kitamura said having two dashboards is unnecessary and could be confusing to the community.
“Really to have two different dashboards, I’m not sure that’s going to be productive,” she said. “Let’s get together, have the same information and understanding of the information so that … nobody has to question one dashboard of the other. If we are gathering the same information, let’s gather the same information.”
You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @benefield.