A ‘very difficult year’ – Sonoma schools still recovering from devastating fire

Piner High School shows none of the scars of an October inferno that killed 24 people in Sonoma County and caused more than $7 billion in property damage. But walk into a classroom, and you’ll find students and teachers still trying to recover.

Inside these school walls are students, teachers and staff who lost their homes, and others still traumatized by a night of fire that caused roughly 25,000 to evacuate.

“Things have gotten back to normal on the outside,” said Rene Berardi, a math teacher at Piner High in Santa Rosa. “But as I look my colleagues, we have all been so affected...It has been a very, very, very difficult year.”

California’s 2017 fire season set all kinds of records, but no county was more devastated than Sonoma. Some 5,200 homes burned, and at least six public and private schools were destroyed or heavily damaged. Public schools took three weeks to restart, and some were shuttered for months because the surrounding neighborhoods were toxic ash fields.

Six months later, classes are back to normal, but the number of students has declined. Daily attendance in the county’s 40 school districts has dropped by about 600 students, according to Steven Herrington, superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education. If those numbers hold or if the number of students dwindles further, the schools stand to lose more than $8 million in annual funding, since California school districts are financed based on their attendance.

Herrington and other education leaders are urging California lawmakers to enact legislation that will hold funding steady until affected school systems can recover. Otherwise, districts might be forced to lay off teachers and staff.

“These school districts have had to deal with the fire. They have lost some classrooms, they have lost some students,” said Herrington. “And now you are going to reduce their money even further?”

For parents and teachers in Sonoma, future funding is a concern, but the bigger focus is just getting through the day. More than 1,400 of the county’s 70,000 public school students lost their homes in the fire, as did 250 school teachers and staff.

In her math classes, Berardi keeps a close eye on seven students whose homes were lost. For them, the last half year has been one of constant transition – moving from motel to motel, staying with friends, couch surfing, long commutes.

“One of my students, for a long time, a couple of weeks, was just in shock,” said Berardi. “He kept staring at the board, trying to figure out, ‘What are we doing here, where am I, what is going on?’”

Another of her students would come into class and fall asleep most afternoons. “She would just put her head down on her desk. She was exhausted.”

Debra Sanders, who coordinates services for homeless youth in the county, lost her home in the fire. Along with her husband and 11-year-old son, she was able to find a rental home a few weeks later. But many of the families she serves have been less fortunate. Some have been living in shelters or sleeping in their cars.

“Even before the fire, we had a really short supply of housing inventory in the county,” said Sanders. That’s one reason that, as of early 2017, a homeless census counted 411 homeless teens and youth in the county, a number that has likely risen.

Within memories of the fires still vivid, mental health has been a major focus of Sonoma schools. Counselors were brought to help students, parents and employees. Teachers were also trained on the telltale signs of trouble with a student, including concentration problems, anxiety, fatigue and a drop in academic performance.

“The social, emotional piece of this really hard,” said Herrington. “I suspect we will have lower test scores the next couple of years, and I’ve told the public that.”

Sonoma’s Oct. 8 fires couldn’t have been more destructive – or disruptive. Fed by high winds, dry brush and downed power lines, the Tubbs fire ripped through affluent and modest neighborhoods, jumped U.S. Highway 101 and kept going.

Thanks to the efforts of firefighters, the vast majority of Sonoma’s 183 schools escaped serious damage. But nearly all of them were forced to close for three weeks. During that time, contractors were brought in to clean and treat the schools for smoke contamination. In the Santa Rosa School District, the county’s largest, fire remediation cost the district $3 million.

During the closure, some Sonoma parents grew impatient, wanting to get kids back in the classroom. But a rapid reopening was not an option, said Diann Kitamura, superintendent of the Santa Rosa School District.

“What made this different was that this was not a normal wildfire. This was a wildfire of buildings,” said Kitamura. As the blaze roared, it spread ashes containing heavy metals and other toxins onto school buildings and play fields, even those that managed to survive the flames. “That’s what we were worried about,” she said.

Because of the lost class time, the Santa Rosa School District has asked U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to grant it a one-year waiver on federal standardized testing requirements. Kitamura argues the tests, scheduled for later this spring and required under the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, would further disrupt classroom instruction, since they take several days to administer.

Since the Department of Education is unlikely to decide on the waiver until later this year, the district plans to forgo the testing and hope it can avoid sanctions.

“We believe our case is compelling,” said Kitamura. “So it would be interesting for the federal government to come back and put a sanction on a district where this much tragedy has happened.”

School officials are also hopeful California lawmakers will pass Assembly Bill 2228. That legislation would effectively “hold harmless” the financing of school districts that have lost attendance due to wildfires, for a period of three years. This month the bill was added to the Legislature’s consent calendar, a sign it has bi-partisan support.

Schools are often called the glue that holds a community together, and in Sonoma, that bond is still strong. Right after the disaster, teachers and parents rushed to create online fund-raising campaigns. Those efforts expanded, ultimately creating a fire relief fund that distributed $32 million to victims.

But it still is a fragile recovery, and eerie reminders of the fire are everywhere.

At Schaefer Elementary School, tidy classrooms and greenery sit across the street from the Coffey Park neighborhood, where more than 1,300 homes burned. While Schaefer survived the fire, it did not reopen until January, when crews finished removing nearby debris and ash.

Tracy Henry, a third-grade teacher at the school, said her classroom became so heated during the blaze that crayons melted and a U.S. flagging on the wall was visibly singed. Henry asked her students whether they should replace the flag or not. The class agreed the old flag should stay.

“We left it there as a sign of resilience,” said Henry. “The students wanted it hanging there because it shows how strong we are and how we can get through this.”

Stuart Leavenworth: 202-383-6070, @sleavenworth