Sonoma County schools keep eye on student behavior after wildfires
As Sonoma County students settle back into the classroom routines after winter break, school officials will be watching closely for dips in academic performance and attendance, outbursts and other behavioral reactions as they continue to wrestle with the aftermath of October’s wildfires.
Ed Navarro, principal of Rincon Valley Middle School and Santa Rosa Accelerated Charter School, said students showed kindness, camaraderie and support for displaced classmates immediately after the fires. While that support remains visible, he said, some students are starting to feel frustrated and left out as classmates and their families remain settled in nearby neighborhoods while they have to commute. Navarro said the fires destroyed the homes of 126 students.
“Some have bought homes in the neighborhood and are re-establishing their lives, while others are still staying on grandma’s couch or in a hotel,” he said. “That’s causing even more isolation.”
Students are struggling to focus in class, while others are losing their temper more easily with friends in the courtyard, Navarro said.
“They just don’t have the ability to let things roll off their shoulders,” he said. “They have so much on their minds that the smallest things are becoming triggers.”
An estimated 9 million students in nine states, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico missed some school in the fall from various natural disasters. Research from the Child & Family Policy Center shows that such chronic absence, defined as missing two days of school a month, “is a proven early warning sign of academic risk and school dropout.”
Further, research on New Orleans’ education system after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina found that 42 percent of the nearly 5,000 surveyed fourth- through 12th-graders qualified for a mental-health referral.
Navarro said local post-fire attendance numbers weren’t available, but he believes student attendance is down, though not nearly as much as he’d expected. Some families face longer commutes, but he said they’re trying to maintain as much normalcy as possible, getting their kids to school every day.
Steve Mizera, the school district’s assistant superintendent of student and family services, said the district is continuing to develop strategies on how best to support and track students and families impacted by the fires. It has provided training to faculty and staff members on what behaviors to look for and how to get students help, knowing the fire’s impacts could linger for months or longer.
Dr. David Schonfeld, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and director of the University of Southern California’s National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, met with district educators earlier this month to discuss ways to support students and school employees. Schonfeld, who has assisted schools across the country after natural disasters, shootings and the 9/11 attacks, stressed the importance of all school employees, regardless of position, understanding students’ likely reactions. Sometimes, he said, it’s the bus drivers, custodians and lunchroom workers who notice changes in students’ behavior.
Schonfeld said it’s not just kids who lived in the burn areas who were impacted. Some could have been traumatized watching news coverage of the fires and their devastation.
At Oak Grove Elementary School, students now get startled when the nearby Graton fire station siren goes off, second-grade teacher Victoria Hill said. They’re unsettled by school bells or passing ambulances. None of her students lost homes, but some were evacuated or had relatives who lost homes.
“They need reassurance that those things are normal, and it doesn’t mean a big fire is coming to get us,” Hill said.
Schonfeld said crises can awaken memories and feelings of past traumatic events. Kids also might pretend to be fine because they are concerned about the stigma surrounding mental health or don’t want to alarm already stressed-out parents.
Santa Rosa City Schools lead psychologist Matt Park said parents also should be mindful of how much they share with their kids on the recovery efforts. Too many details about the cleanup and rebuilding can cause unnecessary stress for kids.
“The filter is very important, recognizing what to share and when to share it,” he said.
Schonfeld said during a presentation earlier this month at the Sonoma County Office of Education that schools need to be vigilant and intervene early; otherwise, they could later face an increase in absenteeism, suspensions and expulsions. He said it’s common for children to struggle academically, but schools need to make sure it doesn’t turn into academic failure. He urged educators to remain flexible. If a student is anxious about an oral report, for example, he said, a teacher could allow him to turn in a written report instead.
“Children have the capacity to be able to cope with things if we support them,” Schonfeld said.
Navarro said students already are struggling with grades. Kids who traditionally got As and Bs now are seeing their grades slip because they can’t focus in class or don’t have a place to do homework at home.
“It’s really amplified their anxiety,” he said. “They were putting all their energy and resources in getting through the day, which leaves little for their academic progress.”
He said he and faculty members have tried to accommodate students while also holding them accountable for their schoolwork. He remains confident his students will bounce back.
“I know this event is going shape a lot of their lives,” Navarro said. “I’m optimistic that the future is good - that these kids are going to be OK.”