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Sonoma County parents dealing with confusion, worry as they prepare for start of school

How is Amy Wood feeling about the start of the school year? Like a lot of Sonoma County parents.

“I wish it was one feeling,” said Wood, mother of three children in the Rincon Valley Union School District. “But it’s trepidation, it’s concern, it’s frustration, annoyance. It’s a lot of things at once.”

She might have been describing the coronavirus pandemic as a whole. For most people, and especially most families with younger children, this has been a lot of things at once. And nothing signals the weirdness and uncertainty more than the start of the fall school semester, which begins Wednesday in some districts, including Cotati-Rohnert Park and Petaluma City Schools. The county’s largest district, Santa Rosa City Schools, resumes classes Monday.

Every school in Sonoma County will begin the term with fully online instruction, requiring students as young as 5 to have access to a computer and internet connection. Most students will experience distance learning for the foreseeable future, perhaps for months. And though districts have, in a sense, had the entire summer to prepare for this moment, the fluid nature of the pandemic meant administrators couldn’t finalize plans until the semester was almost upon them.

“The fact that families had till last Friday to make their decision (on distance vs. hybrid learning in the Santa Rosa City Schools district) is bringing everybody to the 11th hour,” said Becky Ennis, whose 13-year-old daughter is about to start at Santa Rosa Middle School. “It’s a hard situation to be in. I’m not blaming anybody about anything. But no one wants to be making a decision on this in the 11th hour.”

With first bell only hours or days away, parents are scrambling for information, technology solutions and, in many cases, the child care that will allow them to work and pay their rent or mortgage.

“We’re anxious,” said Wallace Francis, father of twin first graders at Cesar Chavez Language Academy in Santa Rosa. “We haven’t really gotten a curriculum yet. We don’t even know who the teacher is yet. We feel kind of at sea, in terms of what we are gonna see happen.”

But there is hope, too, and an acknowledgment that districts and schools are doing what they can to ease the process. Mostly, there is a determination to move forward and find imperfect solutions in an imperfect, virus-ravaged world.

But the situation is daunting, particularly in households where a single parent, or both parents, work outside the home. Those families were hoping for at least a partial reopening of campuses this fall. As of now, Sonoma County’s presence on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “watchlist” ― a result of high virus rates in the county ― has shelved that hope.

“Parents are desperate,” said Kim Burns, an administrative assistant at Cross & Crown Lutheran School in Rohnert Park. “They’re desperate to find a place to put their child so they can go back to work, but also somewhere that their kids are safe.”

Even parents who can work from home, or who have flexible schedules, are concerned about overseeing their children’s education while classrooms are closed.

“There’s a reason why kids go to school,” said Paula Lockwood, a Santa Rosa mom with three children in three different school districts. “When you go to classrooms, kids are there to learn, to stay quiet and focus. It’s not as much like that when you’re in a home. They don’t put all the classes together at school, but that’s what it’s like at home. We basically have three classes going on at the same time.”

Wood said she clashed over late assignments with one of her children’s teachers last spring. She generally believes schools are asking too much of working parents right now.

“We were told that if our kids missed Zoom meetings, there would be roll call, and if they had an unexcused absence, they may face truancy,” Wood said. “My reaction was ‘go for it.’ My priorities are the safety and health of my family, a roof over our head and food.”

The spring semester presented sort of a trial run for the distance learning model. It got better over time, parents say, but generally fell far short of face-to-face instruction. It also came with its share of practical complications.

“We set up a whiteboard in the garage and tried to do as much teaching as we could,” Francis said. “The school sent out handouts. But it was pretty much a complete disaster. Now they’re trying really, really hard. They’re doing the best they can. I just don’t think it works. You’re trying to make something work that just can’t work with kids this age.”

Wood, who is CEO of ACS Technologies, a company that specializes in IT security, said there was little coordination between teachers at her children’s schools, and that Zoom class times kept changing. She said she counted 17 different instructional and communications programs among the three kids’ classes.

She and her husband, Scott, are adapting. The Woods have been busy converting a workroom into a modified classroom for two of their kids, with a makeshift room divider made of furniture. Ennis recently upgraded her Sonic broadband to assist her daughter. She realizes not every family can afford that.

Perhaps no children have been more starkly affected by campus closures that those with IEPs ― the Individualized Education Programs designed for students with special learning needs.

“I’ve never done special ed teaching,” said Angela Berg-Dallara, whose 14-year-old son, Dominic, has severe autism and is nonverbal. “I’m barely holding it together as his mom. The IEP, they set so many goals. But they have a whole team. Speech, occupational therapy, behavior therapy. There’s a whole team of like 10 people who work with him, and now those 10 are supposed to be just me. I’m scrambling. I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Dominic Dallara was making subtle progress at Lattice Educational Services, a school for the autistic. His mother says he has backslid in isolation. His sleep is less consistent, his behavior more intense. Berg-Dallara constantly finds herself bribing him with snacks.

“After regular class (at Lattice), he had group behavior management class for two hours,” she said. “That was all they focused on ― the tantrums and screaming, potty training. He used to pee in the toilet, but now he’s regressed there. I’m standing there holding the bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in my hand, going, ‘C’mon, you got this.’”

Even relatively well-adjusted kids have been knocked off-balance by the lack of social interaction over the past few months. Parents worry that weeks upon weeks of distance learning will only worsen the angst for young people who already had been forced to live through the drama of a succession of dangerous wildfires.

The coronavirus has exposed many vulnerabilities in the American social fabric, and the role of schools is an example. Everyone knows teachers are charged with helping to make kids smarter. Now we are reminded of the many other services a school provides, such as child care, early socialization, physical activity, medical oversight and, for many children, breakfast and lunch.

Parents have always considered themselves the ultimate authority in the lives of their children. But they weren’t necessarily ready to shoulder all these extra burdens.

“I already know I’m not working Monday, because I need to be fully available that day,” Ennis said of the first day of school. “Because I need to know what this will look like, our first taste of this new idea.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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