Brook Knoll kindergarten teacher Krista Patterson walks her students out to their waiting families
Brook Knoll kindergarten teacher Krista Patterson walks her students out to their waiting families in Scotts Valley after their first day back in classrooms this year.
(Nick Ibarra / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

Parents call for commitment, clearer path to full reopening of Santa Cruz County schools

Newly formed parent group Families for Santa Cruz County Schools is urging districts to solidify plans for a full-time reopening of classrooms in the fall — and give parents more of a seat at the table.

A year after public schools first closed their classrooms amid the surging pandemic, every local district is at some stage of reopening under a hybrid model under which students split their time learning in classrooms and from home.

But some Santa Cruz County parents are growing increasingly concerned about when a wider reopening will come. A newly formed advocacy group, Families for Santa Cruz County Schools, is now calling on districts to solidify their plans for the fall — and to do more to ensure families’ voices are heard.

“We need to know that two days a week is not happening in the fall, and I think there are ways the district can tell us for sure that is going to happen,” said Stacey Stringer, a parent at Westlake Elementary and group organizer.

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Formed in February, the group now includes about 180 members from more than 20 schools across a number of county districts. Numerous similar groups have formed across California, in some cases suing school districts over hesitancy to reopen. But in Santa Cruz County the divides so far appear less stark.

District officials are already engaging with the newly formed group, saying they understand its concerns and broadly share the group’s goals.

And Families for Santa Cruz County Schools’ organizers are quick to acknowledge another side to the conversation: parents who view a wider return to school as too risky for their families, and may continue to feel that way come fall. In the same breath as they call for full-time, in-person classes, group organizers also are calling for the option to stay fully remote to remain in place in the fall.

Organizers also acknowledge the importance of the voice of teacher and staff unions, who have their own deep-seated concerns about how and, when, they return to classrooms. Meghan Smith, also a Westlake parent and group organizer, said the union perspective is crucial, but parents also need a voice.

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“I think the thing that’s been missing is that parents, families and children don’t have the same ability to advocate for their needs,” Smith said. “And so I think what we’re trying to do is present that lens at the stakeholder table, not in replace of, not in confrontation — in addition to.”

Officials taking note

In the Santa Cruz City Schools district — where the parent group formed — officials say their goals are broadly aligned and they’re also pushing toward, and are hopeful for, a broader return in the fall. “It is absolutely our intent to be open five days a week next fall,” said Kris Munro, Santa Cruz City Schools’ superintendent.

The district is taking steps to widen lines of communication with parents after meeting with the group earlier this month — an effort to meet one concern outlined in a March 9 letter from the parent group to trustees. On hiatus since the fall, the district’s Reopening Advisory Committee is restarting and doubling its seats for parents from one representative per school to two.

Officials also plan to post more detailed, and frequent, online updates and host more informational webinars — one of which took place Tuesday evening.

“I think there’s a lot of anxiety that we may opt as a district to play it safer than we’re required to in the fall, so we are in the process of making it as clear as possible to that group of parents that that is not the case,” said Sam Rolens, the district’s communications and community engagement chief.

Families for Santa Cruz County organizers say they appreciate those steps, but they want to see a concrete plan in place for a wider classroom reopening as soon as state guidelines allow.

Rolens said that planning is underway but making a guarantee would be preemptive. “We just can’t give any kind of guarantees and a time like this — we’ve learned that,” he said.

Questions around distancing

One focal point for parents’ advocacy is the question of how much spacing needs to be maintained between students seated in classrooms to follow state guidelines and guard against the spread of COVID-19.

A study published last week in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found that students could safely return to classrooms as long as at least 3 feet of separation can be maintained, along with masking and other measures. Guidelines from the California Department of Public Health, however, currently require students to be seated at least 6 feet from one another “except where 6 feet of distance is not possible after a good-faith effort has been made.” Spacing can never be less than 4 feet, according to the state guidelines.

In Berkeley, school district officials say the state guidelines leave with enough wiggle room to start to fully reopen elementary classrooms starting March 29. Students will be spaced out at least 4 feet apart in classrooms, and 6 feet wherever possible, according to Berkeley school officials.

In Santa Cruz City Schools, officials say they looked closely at reopening with 4-foot spacing and found it wouldn’t be feasible.

County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah said state distancing guidelines likely stand in the way of a wider reopening across all local districts. “Until distancing guidelines are removed, I don’t think it’s going to be possible for us to be able to fully reopen our schools,” Sabbah said.

With state guidelines expected to change — possibly, to 3 feet — parents want to know whether or theiir districts are ready to respond.

And even if spacing is prohibitive under state guidelines Smith is advocating for her district to consider a pilot program for full reopening this spring for its youngest students.

“It’s not too late for this year,” Smith said. “Any increase in in person instruction is meaningful, even if it’s one week, two weeks, three weeks. We are reasonable people, we get that everyone is working hard. We want to be collaborative partners and healthy. We don’t want to be adversarial. But we also want to give the kids as much of a chance at in-person learning as we can.”