Sonoma County elementary school can now apply for in-person waivers

Elementary schools in Sonoma County can now apply for waivers allowing them to bring students back into the classroom, but county Superintendent of Schools Steve Herrington is urging school leaders and parents to proceed with caution.

"Everyone needs to know that children are a protected class, and so when you look at a store operation versus a school operation, it has a higher standard protocol," Herrington said. "You cannot compare a school to Home Depot or Raley's or Safeway."

The county's 106 public elementary schools and more than two dozen private elementary schools are now able to seek waivers in order to offer in-person instruction because the county's COVID-19 case rate has dropped below 200 per 100,000 residents, to 195.5.

The waiver option applies only to elementary schools. Middle and high schools can open for in-person classes without a waiver only once the county is downgraded from the most stringent of four state-defined tiers that outline when businesses and services can reopen and under what restrictions.

Sonoma County is now in the most restrictive level, purple, and must move to the next tier, red, before middle and high schools can reopen.

"Hopefully, these trends continue and we can see that happening," said Herrington, speaking at a Wednesday briefing.

In their waiver applications, school administrators must include a comprehensive plan that addresses topics ranging from hygiene practices to screening, from staff training to class size, and from family education to descriptions of what would trigger a switch back to distance learning.

RELATED: San Jose Unified schools to continue distance learning through 2020

But any school that reopens for in-person instruction must also have in place protocols for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, expensive safety measures that the state has said it won't be able to provide until November.

"If you open up now, you bear the cost," Herrington said.

Herrington said other reasons for caution include the upcoming flu season and outbreaks of COVID-19 cases at 13 private preschool and home-based childcare facilities in the county announced by Health Officer Sundari Mase on Wednesday. Mase said the outbreaks have involved 25 children, 27 of their family members, and 10 preschool staff members.

Mase, speaking at the same briefing as Herrington, said outbreaks are occurring in settings ranging from agriculture to retail "so it's not at all surprising that we'd also have cases in these day care centers and early learning centers."

She added, "I do think it's something that gives us a little pause when we think about going back to reopen schools."

Trustees for Santa Rosa City Schools, the largest district in Sonoma County, voted unanimously Wednesday to continue with only distance learning through the end of 2020 for reasons of cost and safety. 

In Napa County -- which is in the red tier -- all schools became eligible to reopen without waivers Sept. 14, but each of its five school districts is offering the option of 100 percent distance instruction.

Two of those districts are offering a hybrid model of in-person and online instruction, one may go to in-person instruction later this year, and the others are reviewing their options, said Seana Wagner, Napa County Office of Education spokesperson.

In Solano County, which is in the purple tier, 12 private elementary schools and one public elementary school have applied for waivers, said Jennifer Leonard, spokesperson for the Solano County Office of Education.

In Marin County, which the state moved into the red tier Tuesday, all schools are now eligible to offer in-person instruction.