July 17, 2020 / 4:07 PM / 24 days ago

Kids, safety and schools - A pandemic debate plays out in California county

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) - In Sutter County in California’s bucolic Sacramento Valley, coronavirus cases are rising, but Mike Ziegenmeyer wants his kids back in the classroom.

FILE PHOTO: Social distancing dividers for students are seen in a classroom at St. Benedict School, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus, in Montebello, near Los Angeles, California, July 14, 2020. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

Unlike big-city school districts that plan to offer only remote learning this fall as COVID-19 rages through the state, several school districts in this agricultural region - once part of the 19th century gold rush - intend to accommodate that wish.

“I want my kids in school,” said Ziegenmeyer, a county supervisor and political conservative. “I think they need the social interaction.”

Ziegenmeyer, at least for now, will get his wish. The tiny Brittan School District where his three children attend class plans to bring students back to the classroom.

But opposition by some other parents in the county shows how Sutter County is a microcosm of a debate raging across California and the United States of whether it is safe to reopen schools amid a resurgent wave of coronavirus cases.

Cases started rising sharply in Sutter, as elsewhere in California, at the beginning of June and have continued to climb, increasing from about 75 cases to nearly 700. At least 17 people from Sutter, with a population of 97,000 and just a few hospital beds, were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of July 16, and 378 are currently ill, county data show.

Like so many of the controversies related to the pandemic, the school issue has become increasingly politicized. Republican President Donald Trump has been urging a return to regular school schedules, while many Democrats advocate a more cautious approach, such as continuing with the virtual lessons widely introduced when the spreading pandemic forced a sudden shutdown of schools in the spring.

Ziegenmeyer resents what he says is a heavy-handed approach by Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, who early this week put the brakes on the reopening of California’s economy as he reversed orders that had allowed many businesses to open their doors again. On Friday Newsom will release new guidelines on reopening schools.

Ziegenmeyer is also concerned parents will suffer economic harm if they can’t work because children are home from school.

HYBRID MODEL

In California, many large urban districts, including Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento, have said they will begin the academic year with remote instruction. But plans vary from county to county, and from one school district to another.

The board of the Yuba City Unified School District, Sutter’s county seat and its largest municipality with 67,000 residents, voted last week to reopen with traditional instruction, five days per week.

The move, which was against the superintendent’s recommendation, stunned parents and teachers expecting either remote learning or a hybrid model, under which children attend small classes for part of the week, with strict social distancing. The teachers union began tense negotiations on Thursday over the plan.

“It is my hope that they will change their minds,” said Dina Luetgens, president of the Yuba City Teachers Association, which wants a hybrid model under which only half the district’s students would be on campus at a time.

In-person instruction, even under such a model, would require careful planning and protective gear for teachers as well as students, she said. Without that, teachers and children would be safer studying remotely from home, she said.

The school district did not respond to requests for comment. But Superintendent Doreen Osumi told the local Appeal-Democrat newspaper the district would have to implement social distancing guidelines and require children to wear face coverings. Parents who do not wish to send their children back to school will be allowed to choose a remote learning plan, although it was not immediately clear how it would be organized.

Sutter County is no stranger to not following the crowd. In May, Sutter, neighboring Yuba and Modoc counties defied state restrictions aimed at controlling the coronavirus spread and allowed restaurants, retail stores and fitness centers to reopen even though it was prohibited by state guidelines.

The guidelines Newsom is expected to release on Friday could upend plans to reopen school campuses. But even if reopening continues, Leslie Gundy says she will not send her two children back to school in Yuba City.

“We are in no way prepared to do that,” said Gundy, whose husband is a teacher in the district. “There’s been too little communication about their plan and how they are going to keep my children safe - and our teachers safe.”

Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Leslie Adler

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