Thousands return to online classes in Sonoma County on first day of school

Lightning, thunder and winds knocked out power on Day 1 for some families as thousands kicked off the school year from home.|

On Monday, Stephanie Foss took the first day of school off from work, just like she has done every other year in recent memory, all the better to get her three kids up, fed and ready for a new academic year.

But instead of taking photos and dropping the kids off at Cesar Chavez Language Academy and Cook Middle School, Foss never left the house. The mother of three spent a good chunk of the day Monday moving from a downstairs workstation to upstairs bedrooms, monitoring Zoom meetings, troubleshooting Chromebooks and making sure the academic day went smoothly.

It was a scene that unfolded across Sonoma County on Monday as the 2020-21 school year opened not on campuses but in homes, the result of public health orders that prevented schools from conducting in-person classes amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Although some districts started last week and a few will kick off later this week, Monday marked the largest return to school day in this most unusual school year. Santa Rosa City Schools, the largest district in Sonoma County with its nearly 16,000 students, started class Monday, as did Sonoma Valley, Rincon Valley, Sebastopol, Geyserville, Bellevue and others.

Windsor, too, was set to kick off Monday but multiple weather-related power outages threw yet another wrinkle into plans. Superintendent Jeremy Decker sent an email Sunday announcing Monday classes were canceled and school would officially start Tuesday.

And the hits kept coming.

In Santa Rosa, Slater Middle School reported that many families lost power after mid-morning lightning, thunder and heavy winds, rendering internet connections to the third of the day’s three block classes impossible for some. The same thing unfolded for students at Maria Carrillo High School and Rincon Valley Middle School, where power was out from about 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., according to district spokeswoman Beth Berk.

Rincon Valley Unified School District announced the district would reschedule Zoom meetings scheduled between teachers and families that were canceled because of power outages affecting area neighborhoods.

Foss didn’t have those issues at her home. The thunder and lightning even provided some entertainment during her first grader’s class time.

And on top of a little luck, she did some early preparation, practicing log-ons and a short run-through of how the day would unfold. She has also leaned on other parents for teaching and tech tips and said the Cesar Chavez staff has been in near-constant communication with support and how-to conference calls.

Still, when Monday morning rolled around, Foss was a little nervous — like it was her first day, too.

“We worked over the weekend to make sure Zoom was working and Google Classroom was working,” she said. “Everyone got on super easy and I’m knocking on wood right now.”

“I can’t praise our school community enough,” she said.

But everything felt different. P.E. was around the kitchen table. Lunch was at home. Even the dress code is different.

“Normally at school they have to wear uniforms,” Foss said.

Not this year. The age of the Zoom room, where just a face and maybe a sliver of collar can be seen on the computer screen, has eliminated the traditional first day of school photos. Now instead of front porch shots in backpacks and the latest finery, social media was filled with shots of more casual garb and kids in front of computer screens.

“They all picked a really nice shirt and were in their pajama bottoms,” Foss said.

“But I did make them brush their hair, brush their teeth — the top half is ready to go,” she said. “I can’t guarantee they are wearing shoes.”

Kendra Neese, too, considers herself lucky. The single mom was up at 6 a.m. readying her Luther Burbank Elementary School first grader, Ezaue, for his first day and making sure her 1-year-old daughter, Aloya, kept a schedule that would allow mom to help Ezaue through his first day.

There was some trepidation in her house because distance learning didn’t go terribly smoothly for Neese — or for many others — last spring when the pandemic hit and schools were shuttered nearly overnight.

“We didn’t do so good with the last distance learning. We weren’t used to it and we didn’t know what to expect. It was all new,” she said.

But on Monday, with mom by his side, Ezaue logged on and was introduced to his first grade teacher, Angelica Moreno. Neese said Moreno split her screen between giving instructions and a visual presentation about the technology — all so students will be able to navigate with increasing independence.

“The hugest difference really was just going on to the computer and saying ’Hey this is your teacher, this is who you are going to be working with,’ and he knew her, that was good,” she said.

Ezaue felt it, too. There was more confidence today, Neese said.

“He did so good, he had a great attitude,” she said. “He woke up and he was like ’I’m a first grader now.’”

His reward? A Slushee. After all, the storms of the morning gave way to intense heat by afternoon.

Foss, too, was about the rewards Monday. Her first grader’s lunch request? Milkshakes.

"It will be a special treat,“ she said. ”I think we can do that.“

And tomorrow they, and the families of nearly 70,000 other school kids in Sonoma County will do it again.

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

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