Already learning from home, thousands of Sonoma County students shut out of even distance learning by wildfires

Sonoma County school officials are becoming unintentional experts at this.

For the fourth straight year, area schools are canceling classes because of wildfires. This time it is the LNU Lightning Complex fire, a series of blazes ignited by dry lightning that have torched more than 350,000 acres since Aug. 17.

But this round of evacuations and school closures is different because it comes on top of an already challenging start to the 2020-21 school year, when all 40 districts in Sonoma County have been forced to open with online-only instruction because of the coronavirus pandemic.

So far, six districts have canceled online classes for approximately 2,800 students, just as they were getting familiar with their teachers and school staff through Zoom meetings and Google Classroom sessions. Many had been forced to leave their homes as authorities ordered evacuations across a large swath of west Sonoma County.

“I think it’s one devastating blow after another,” Guerneville School District Superintendent Dana Pedersen said.

As of Monday afternoon, the town of Guerneville remained largely under mandatory evacuation orders even though some areas had been cleared for residents’ return. Guerneville Elementary School and the district offices are located on Armstrong Woods Road — in the middle of the evacuated area — at the southern end of Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, where flames reached the valley floor.

“We had four days of school under our belt,” Pedersen said. “We were just rekindling the relationships, offering our daily grab-and-go meals, and computer services —community-building things — then this happened. It’s hard to say exactly when we are reopening.”

In addition to Guerneville, schools in the Monte Rio, Montgomery, Forestville and Healdsburg school districts were closed Monday. El Molino High School in Forestville, part of the West Sonoma County Union High School District, had also canceled classes.

Sonoma County Superintendent of Education Steve Herrington on Monday confirmed with state superintendent Tony Thurmond that affected districts can apply for a waiver from penalties for yet another round of lost instructional time.

In the face of the coronavirus pandemic and widespread complaints about how distance learning was implemented up and down the state last spring, California lawmakers sought to make it harder for districts to cut instructional minutes from each school day. Those measures should not impact area districts from seeking waivers from financial penalties in the wake of the fires, Herrington said.

“When they passed the budget and SB98 they didn’t want districts to arbitrarily file for waivers under distance learning,” Herrington said. “But it’s not just arbitrarily being used. ... It’s being used for a disaster on top of distance learning.”

The emergency closures do not affect school districts’ funding sources because in the 2020-21 school year those funds will not be calculated by average daily attendance as in the past, but by last year’s enrollment numbers.

In addition, at least five of the districts affected by the most recent round of fires had added emergency days to their calendar to provide a buffer against unexpected stoppages. It was unclear Monday if Montgomery School District in Cazadero, currently listed with an enrollment of 21 students, had emergency days in place.

As evacuations were gradually lifted around Healdsburg, where the Walbridge fire continues to burn near the town’s western flank, Healdsburg Unified School District Superintendent Chris Vanden Heuvel said crews were cleaning campuses Monday in preparation for a planned return to distance learning Tuesday. Many teachers in the district are broadcasting lessons from their classrooms, he said.

Healdsburg students and teachers had one day of class — last Wednesday — before life was disrupted yet again. But that one day proved how important connection, even via a computer monitor, is for so many, Vanden Heuvel said.

“Our kids have been so isolated by COVID,” he said. “It felt really good for a lot of people and we want, in the middle of the fire, to get as much normalcy as we possibly can.”

Vanden Heuvel, whose own family is evacuated, said any student wanting to opt out of classes Tuesday will be excused.

“Isolation is a big concern and social emotional well-being of kids is a concern,“ he said. “(Tuesday) is going to be light. We are nowhere near normal yet.“

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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