As schools in many neighboring counties gradually reopen and offer a model of instruction where small cohorts of students can return to the classroom, Sonoma County families may understandably wonder why that’s not yet the case here.

Schools’ ability to resume in-person classes is governed by California’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy.” The Blueprint classifies counties by colored tiers based on their COVID-19 epidemiology, with purple (substantial spread) being the most restrictive and yellow (minimal spread) being the least. The state dictates when businesses and schools can reopen based on these tiers.

Steven Herrington headshot

Steven Herrington

Right now, Sonoma County is thelast Bay Area county in the purple tier.

According to the state, schools can’t reopen for in-person instruction until they reach the red tier (with exceptions for elementary schools that get a waiver from the health department and for small, targeted group instruction of students at high risk, such as those receiving special education or English Learner services).

Once we meet the criteria to go to the red tier, we must keep it up for two weeks before we’re officially listed as red. At that point, schools still have to wait an additional two weeks before they are permitted to reopen.

All this means it will still be at least one month (mid-November) before schools in Sonoma County are allowed to reopen for modified in-person instruction under the state’s guidelines.

At that point, each school district is responsible for developing and implementing its own reopening plan based on local and state guidance. Many districts are considering a gradual, phased-in approach that prioritizes the health and safety of staff and students, as well as their academic and social/emotional needs. Many will be using models that keep small cohorts of students, spaced six feet apart, together throughout the day.

Before in-person classes can resume, schools also need to be able to meet state guidelines to regularly test all staff and conduct contact tracing for any COVID-19 cases on campus. These are complex and costly challenges for schools. My office is working to help local schools address these challenges by organizing a contact tracing training with our county health department for all districts and identifying affordable, timely options for routine testing of staff. All this takes time to put in place.

Additionally, we will soon be in the middle of flu season, which will pose significant new challenges to fighting COVID-19.

This news will be disheartening for many families who find themselves in the nearly impossible situation of balancing distance learning with work and other responsibilities. Educators in Sonoma County want children to return to the classroom as soon as possible. Unfortunately, we are all bound by the realities of this terrible virus.

Ultimately, we will be able to resume in-person learning when the state allows us to do so and when we have systems in place to keep everyone safe.  Until then, administrators, teachers, and staff are working hard to support students as best they can in distance learning and put systems in place for a safe return to in-person learning.

In the meantime, we can all do our part to help children get back into the classroom sooner: washing hands, keeping our circles of contacts small and getting a flu shot are meaningful steps to slow the spread of the virus within our community so that it is safe again for children to return to class.

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

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