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As parents, teachers and students wait to receive concrete guidelines about the pending return to in-person classes, many districts — Cloverdale included — have been left waiting in the lurch as they balance health orders, reduced budgets, increased required protocol for sanitization and social distancing and the unknown of how the COVID-19 pandemic will progress.

At the Cloverdale Unified School District Board of Trustees meeting on Wednesday, June 24, the board discussed the rocky road to reopening, but was clear that their available actions thus far are limited. 

When it comes to reopening, outgoing Superintendent Jeremy Decker said that one of the deciding factors for how Cloverdale schools will reopen is the length of social distancing that school sites will have to observe. Last week, Sonoma County Superintendent Steve Herrington announced that he was pushing for Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase to allow schools to reopen with 4-foot social distancing in place, rather than the health order-mandated 6 feet. According to Decker, Herrington made the request after learning that schools in Marin county were being told they could open with only 4 feet of social distancing between people. 

“It’s going to be completely dependent on this exact decision — 6-foot social distancing or 4-foot social distancing — it changes everything,” Decker said. “And it’s going to be dependent on which stage we’re in as a county. There are 24 counties that are fully open and we’re one of the least open counties because of our patient load for COVID.”

One day after the school board meeting, on June 25, the Sonoma County Office of Education announced that it had agreed to continue with 6-foot social distancing. 

Like other businesses and sectors of the county, the school district’s level of open depends on what stage the county is in with its own reopening. If it reverts back to stage two, kids would have to be back on distance learning. If the county remains in stage three, the district would operate under some sort of hybrid schedule. Once the county opens back up to stage four, schools can reopen with a 4-foot social distancing requirement, which would allow Cloverdale’s kindergarten through sixth grade classes to open for all in-person classes; under stage four, the model that seventh through 12th grade would have to follow is a bit more unknown, since it’s more difficult for those grades to operate in cohorts. 

Right now, the county is sitting at stage three of reopening.

“Most likely stage three would be 6-foot distancing in classrooms,” Decker said. “We would be looking at some sort of hybrid model where we have the same cohort of kids come in on Tuesdays and the same cohort of kids come in on Thursdays, and then a different cohort come in Wednesday and Friday — something along those lines.”

“I feel like it’s ever-changing and that we’re going to have to have a July meeting to discuss anything that’s going to change, and obviously August and maybe even special board meetings, because it changes all the time,” board president Jacque Garrison said. 

What if the district wants to go against the health order?

The school district, knowing that parents are eager for a district plan and wanting to listen to parents who may be concerned about kids staying on distance learning while they’re trying to go back to work, asked Mase what would happen if the district chooses to ignore the school reopening guidelines set forth by the health order.

While Decker said that Mase didn’t have much to say in response, he said that the district’s insurance provider laid out some coverage areas that would be cause for concern.

“I reached out to the executive director directly and also our legal counsel and essentially was told that if we did that, each board member could be personally cited, as could the superintendent,” Decker said. “Ultimately the board would have to make an active decision to do that at a board meeting, to open against the order. More than that, we would be making the district liable if someone were to get sick, if a teacher were to get sick, if a student were to get a parent sick, something along those lines. We could be sued, and insurance wouldn’t cover us because we went against orders.”

Trustee Preston Addison said that the district wouldn’t be insured regardless, since COVID-19 falls under a communicable disease, which isn’t covered under the district’s insurance. 

Later on in the meeting, Trustee Todd Lands asked Decker (or incoming superintendent Betha MacClain) to check back in with the district’s insurance provider to clarify what they would and would not cover, should the district decide to have students come back in a way that doesn’t strictly follow the health order.

“I personally am very concerned that we would go against health guidance,” said Trustee Cecile Peters. “I know everybody wants to open up, but I don’t think it’s a wise thing to do.”

Decker said that he thinks the district won’t be opening up full time in the fall, and will instead open as a hybrid program. The details of what that hybrid model may consist of are still unknown. 

While the trustees did discuss the possibility of creating different reopening plans for different school sites, Decker noted that they’re still fleshing out plans with site heads and teachers, and that they want to try and figure out a way to make it as easy as possible for families who may have kids at multiple district sites.

“I have a feeling that we will not open full time based on the conversations I’m having. I just think the county health official is going to stick to her guns,” Decker said. 

Kids on the move

The trustees briefly addressed the possibility that parents may want to pull their kids from the district if it ends up continuing on a distance learning or hybrid learning path. 

Some trustees and members of the public pointed out that many neighboring districts, including out of county ones like Ukiah Unified, will likely be operating in a similar way as the CUSD and may not accept incoming students.

Where do teachers stand?

“TAC (Teachers Association of Cloverdale) took it upon ourselves to survey union members and … we had 70% who do want to go back to normal, but there’s also a huge chunk of people who, despite what we may want and we understand what parents want, we’re on the front lines. We talked to parents throughout this process, we talked to students … yeah, the resounding response was, ‘Gosh, we’d love to go back to normal,” TAC president Erika Sauder said. 

She said that, especially with Cloverdale being a “majority minority school” the district shouldn’t base its decision on just what the group of people attending the board meeting may want. 

“We have a lot of migrant families and a lot of people who are at a higher risk of contracting this, and it’s something that we need to be thinking about,” Sauder said. “We need to think about every single student and how that impacts coming back for students and teachers. It can’t be based on, ‘Hopefully we don’t get sued for workman’s comp issues.’”

Lands responded, saying that the district isn’t overlooking student health, rather it’s trying to flesh out what options are and are not available when it comes to reopening. 

Other things to figure out

Besides figuring out the bones of how school will look come fall, the district and the board of trustees has myriad other things to work out still. Among them is grading, figuring out how to track attendance and distance learning for the state, communicating with before and after school care providers, among other things.

“I feel like our hands are tied with what the state and the county say we can do. I want to do the maximum — I want to do the most that we can do to get our students, as well as keep them safe, get them back to school full time,” Garrison said.

When asked how the board wants to move forward with creating more of a reopening plan, Peters said that she’s interested in getting community input and forming committees of people to figure out different facets of the reopening process.

The board as a whole deferred to MacClain, since she’ll be the superintendent of the district moving forward.

“I think that we have to start with the model we think we’re most likely to enter into at the start of the year, but we’re probably going to have three or four plans. We have to have a distance learning model, a blended model, an in-person model and also a structure for pivoting if we have to move from one to the other quickly,” MacClain said.

“I have to agree with Jeremy that we’re going to be doing (a hybrid model),” she said. 

The regular district board meeting that was scheduled for July 8 has been canceled. According to its website, the next regular board meeting is scheduled for Aug. 12.

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