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Sonoma County schools eye potential year-round model in era of pandemics, wildfires

The pressure to reopen schools is weighing on Richard Crane Elementary Principal Teresa Ruffoni, who in a month is supposed to start a new academic year at her Rohnert Park campus.

It is one of four in Sonoma County that operate on a year-round schedule, offering lengthier breaks in the fall and spring while ending at the same time as regular schools, just before the holidays and in late May for the summer.

Amid the disruptions and instructional losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the year-round model has been pitched as one potential solution by state leaders, including Gov. Gavin Newsom, even as local districts scramble to craft individual plans that would allow their campuses to reopen this year while adhering to a raft of health safeguards.

For Ruffoni, the attention given of late to year-round schools has come as a bit of a surprise, and she has questions about the feasibility of such a switch for districts over a single summer.

Still, she has become an evangelist for the year-round school calendar, one that she thinks benefits students and families. Richard Crane reopened under a year-round system in 2017 following a 15-year closure. It made the switch to shorter breaks between semesters to avoid the scholastic slide.

“When students are out of school for so long, they start to forget academic things but they also forget routines and school expectations,” Ruffoni said. “(In our calendar), they get a nice sense of that summer - lazy days not doing anything. But it’s not so long that then they’re like, ‘I’m bored,’ and their parents are ready for them to come back.”

Still an anomaly

Newsom, in one of his daily briefings on the coronavirus, raised year-round school as a way to stagger schedules by creating multiple calendar tracks to reduce the number of students sharing a campus at any given time.

But few year-round schools exist in the area, and the model remains an anomaly statewide. Of the more than 170 schools in Sonoma County, Richard Crane is the only traditional public school operating under the year-round model, serving about 200 students in transitional kindergarten through 5th grade. The other three, River Montessori, Penngrove and Mary Collins at Cherry Valley, are elementary charter schools in the south county.

Richard Crane is a magnet school in the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District, which means it doesn’t have a designated attendance zone, Ruffoni said. Its revival as a year-round school three years ago came from the need to offload that track from Evergreen Elementary once it became too challenging to offer families different calendar options.

Local families in the area have to opt-in to Richard Crane, and for the many that do, the calendar is merely one of numerous considerations, like technology access, modern amenities and a sleek design. That was the case for Rohnert Park resident Catherine Sharma, whose two daughters are enrolled at the school.

She is counting the days until classes resume as soon as next month.

“Having the potential to return in July, after having the distance learning, is huge for me,” Sharma said. “I was questioning myself every day if I’m doing enough for my children. Having that shorter summer break going back in July - they get back into that normal school routine quicker than if they had two months of distance learning and another 12 weeks of summer break.”

The year-round calendar has 180 school days, the same as a traditional school. And though students at Crane have not been immune to instructional losses from fires, power shutoffs and the pandemic, they do have a calendar more suited to making up those days.

Instructional losses from the pandemic for the average student could amount to a year by September, according to a working paper by the education nonprofit NWEA and scholars from Brown University and the University of Virginia.

Health benefit in doubt

A May study by Policy Analysis for California Education found that bringing students back with a staggered calendar would have clear academic advantages, and would help both parents and school staff get back to work. But there was no evidence that multitrack calendars could reduce COVID-19 transmission.

For Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steve Herrington, forging a multitrack, year-round system would require complex labor negotiations within each district - not to mention additional funding for the added workdays in a moment where school budgets are being slashed because of California’s $54 billion deficit.

“The problem here is time - the compounding of time,” Herrington said. “We have to address the COVID-19 issue, and (year-round calendars) could be a byproduct districts want to bring up, but it has to be negotiated. That has slowed down the process in the past.”

Petaluma City Schools Superintendent Gary Callahan, whose district includes Penngrove and Mary Collins schools, has been a member of the county task force crafting a framework for all 40 local districts to safely reopen.

Too few students

The notion of a multitrack schedule hasn’t come up, he said, and wouldn’t be feasible given the relatively small student populations in Sonoma County’s schools. It was a system more popular four decades ago when there were fewer schools serving wider areas, resulting in more students than desks available, Callahan said.

Over time, traditional two-semester calendars have moved up their start date as school populations changed, he said. And lately, in an environment where schools have needed more resiliency to help navigate natural disasters and other disruptions, summer break is getting shorter.

“With the public safety power shut-offs, we had to add an additional week in the calendar for next year,” Callahan said. “There’s been a significant shift over time of about four weeks toward the year-round calendar. I don’t know if it will continue that way or not.”

The teachers at Richard Crane say it’s worth considering.

The advent of distance learning in mid-March forced educators countywide to scramble over their weeklong spring break and reinvent months of lesson plans for a digital or paper-packet format.

Years of disruptions

Faculty at Richard Crane were in the middle of their break, too, but theirs lasted two weeks, providing more time to prepare. Using social media, kindergarten teacher Morgan Taylor said she was able to gather ideas and collaborate with other teachers around the nation, tapping into best practices that made the transition easier for her classroom, she said.

“I was able to read and watch and listen to figure out what went wrong, what worked for them,” Taylor said. “That helped my co-teacher and I tailor what we wanted to do with our kids.”

Sonoma County schools have faced repeated disruptions in recent years, marked by three consecutive Octobers where wildfires, air quality and PG&E power blackouts have closed schools. Under some year-round models, risky periods such as the peak of fire season, could be reworked as a break.

At Richard Crane, Taylor said their calendar has “been very beneficial,” allowing teachers more time to regain lost instruction.

But Ruffoni, the school’s principal, pointed out that natural disasters and viral outbreaks don’t care what sort of calendar a school has.

“It would be nice if we could schedule disasters or pandemics, but we can’t,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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