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Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steve Herrington released a letter to the community detailing the current status of school reopening and school staff vaccinations, and how the Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE) is guiding those plans.

“I know these have been extremely difficult times for our schools and community. Students have struggled academically and socially for almost a year. I, and the schools and districts my organization serves, realize how important it is to the entire community that Sonoma County schools reopen as soon and as safely as possible. I would like to share with you an update on the progress of school reopening in Sonoma County,” the letter begins.

The letter goes on to reiterate the strong desire of SCOE and local school boards for schools to reopen. “To do so, several state-required components must be in place to ensure staff and student safety. Each local school board will decide when it is safe for their schools to reopen, but SCOE is working closely with school districts to support them in their planning and meeting these requirements,” the letter said.

SCOE began administering COVID-19 vaccines to school employees on Feb. 8.

“This will launch our effort to vaccinate 17,000 licensed childcare providers and preschools, TK-12 educators, support staff and higher education staff throughout the county,” Herrington said. “While vaccines are only one part of a multi-pronged effort to reopen schools, they are a critical piece of the puzzle. They represent an important step forward in helping school staff feel safe to return to in-person learning.”

SCOE’s plan includes that in the first week the goal is 1,100 vaccinations, with a plan to quickly gear up in the weeks ahead to providing 3,000 to 4,000 shots per week, however these goals are based on the county get enough vaccines, something which has been far from a certainty.

According to SCOE, the progression of vaccines will start with any educators over the age of 70 as well aslicensed preschool/childcare providers and school staff who are providing regular, direct care and instruction to children (in other words, those at schools who are already operating under a waiver).

The letter states that these priorities were set in collaboration with the county health department in order to prioritize those with the greatest exposure. In coming weeks priorities will then move forward to vaccinate: first, all elementary school staff, then, middle and high school staff and district office staff, and finally, higher education staff who don’t currently have contact with students.

The letter then goes on to discuss plans for school reopening. “Schools are working hard to develop the state’s newly required COVID-19 Safety Plans. While almost all school districts developed safety plans months ago, the state now requires a new plan which must be approved by our local public health department and the state before any elementary school can reopen while still in the purple tier. This new approval process may take several weeks. We are working closely with the health department to set schools up for success in completing and having these plans approved,” the letter says.

According to SCOE, under the state’s new reopening guidance, elementary schools are eligible to reopen when the number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents drops to 25 or below for five days or more. Middle and high schools have to wait longer —until we are in the “red tier,” when the number of cases per 100,000 residents is 7 or below. The state recommends that school districts in the purple tier phase in their reopening, bringing back just one or two grades at a time.

As of Feb. 8, Sonoma County’s COVID numbers show a daily adjusted case rate of 21.5 per 100,000, still firmly in the purple tier, but finally low enough for the county to be eligible to be a part of the governor’s new guidelines.

According to the letter, schools have been hard at work for months making their campuses safe, including:

  • Installing high-quality air filtration systems in many classrooms,
  • Creating handwashing stations,
  • Modifying classroom setups,
  • Developing plans for student arrival and drop-off, and much more.
  • Last fall, SCOE received and distributed to school districts one very large shipment of personal protective equipment; we will get another shipment soon.

SCOE is also taking the lead in helping districts to meet the state’s testing requirements for staff and students by developing partnerships with several testing vendors available for them to use.

The letter concludes with this from Herrington: “I know this has been an incredibly frustrating time for our school community. Thankfully, our county’s case rate is steadily improving. School districts are working alongside teachers, school staff, and families to have all the pieces in place to reopen as soon as possible.”

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