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.”