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August 6, 2020
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CRPUSD No decision, but a sense of direction

By: Cassandra May Albaugh
July 17, 2020

The Cotati Rohnert Park Unified School District continues to struggle with reaching a school reopening decision for the fall. However, at the Special School Board Meeting held July 7, a clear sense of what they think should happen is emerging. The two- and one-half hour meeting included over four dozen public comments from parents and teachers. A staff presentation then board member questions and comments followed. Another meeting is scheduled for July 21, at 6 p.m. The start time is an hour later than normal, so that working parents will have a chance to get home and tune in.

Almost 200 viewers watched tonight’s You Tube meeting. This was the first official meeting of new Superintendent Dr. Mayra Perez. She officially took office on July 1. However, Perez has been participating in meetings well before her official start date. Former Interim Superintendent Dr. Mike Watenpaugh continues to be involved, assisting Perez until his contract ends in November. Perez, Watenpaugh and Assistant Superintendent Julie Synyard took turns reading the public comments from parents and teachers.

Most comments were from teachers who expressed their concerns that a hybrid model of reopening isn’t the safe option to follow at this time. It was clear that many are concerned about the health and safety not just of themselves but also that of their students and adults who interact with them inside and outside of the school setting. Most recommended the district use a distance learning model only, for at least the first half of the school year. Meaning at least through December or until no cases of COVID-19 are reported for at least 14 consecutive days. In addition to the safety and health issue, they expressed concerns about how a hybrid model could effectively work while following guidelines such as masking, sanitizing, distancing of students along with many other similar questions. 

The parent comments were more divided. Some flatly stated they wouldn’t send kids to an in-person setting because of health risks. They wanted to know what their online options would be. Others pushed for in-person schooling. They felt their kids didn’t receive adequate instruction based on their experience of distance learning last spring. Single parents or dual working parents expressed frustration at trying to work and help their kids learn through the distance method. Also stated was that a hybrid model puts added economic pressure on lower middle-income families for childcare and related expenses when kids are not in school. How could they plan work schedules around an online only or hybrid models? Issues of mental health, socialization and special education needs were among other concerns that were raised.

Following public comments, Perez led a staff presentation with highlights on safety guidelines required for any in-person school opening. She also raised concerns that Senate Bill 98 appears to be directing schools to open. They risk their funding unless a public health official specifically orders them to remain closed. Trustees Chrissa Gillies and Jennifer Wiltermood watched the presentation from Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steve Herrington earlier in the day. They indicated that they didn’t get a clear sense of what direction he was supporting regarding schools reopening. Gillies said she doesn’t “understand why we are looking at students on campus at all.” She claims “we’re asking for big trouble” if we go that way. Perez stated that she needs to consult with legal about the funding issue. That appears to be a sticking point regarding making a final decision. 

Perez requested an additional two weeks to try and get more answers. As of right now, it appears she’s looking at a dual path to plan for not only a possible hybrid opening, but also a distance learning only decision. However, the clear sense from public and board comments was that distance learning only was the direction most wanted to go if possible. Now she needs to tie down the legal and funding questions before the next meeting where a decision will likely be made. August is just around the corner; any decision must be clearly communicated so that both staff and parents have time to plan. 

Perez realizes and admitted “not everyone is going to be happy.” Board President Leffler Brown closed the meeting saying this is by far the toughest decision he’s been part of in his many years on the school board. Whatever the ultimate decision becomes, as Wiltermood said “it effects everybody in a different way.”