With unprecedented numbers of failing grades, reports of student anxiety, Sonoma County education leaders call emergency summit

Facing a steep spike in students with failing grades as well as emerging evidence of pervasive mental health woes among area teens, education leaders in Sonoma County have scheduled an unprecedented emergency summit.|

Facing a steep spike in students with failing grades as well as emerging evidence of pervasive mental health woes among area teens, education leaders in Sonoma County have scheduled an unprecedented emergency summit to address what they are describing as a looming crisis.

High school students are failing classes at rates never before seen in Sonoma County — in some cases double the number recorded in the first six weeks of school last year, superintendents of secondary districts are reporting.

As educators begin a search for solutions to the surge of low grades, they are also grappling with the troubling results from a national survey of student mental health. Sonoma County students, unlike the majority of their peers elsewhere in the state and nation, are reporting feeling deep anxiety over their futures.

More than 7 out of 10 of the more than 4,500 high school students in Sonoma County who participated in a national survey in May reported that “feeling anxious about the future” was the No. 1 barrier to distance learning. By comparison, “distractions at home” was the chief obstacle to distance learning listed by the more than 20,000 students from nine states who participated in the survey by YouthTruth, a nonprofit organization formed as part of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

“When we heard the YouthTruth (results) that 71% have a fear of the future, that is when it hit home: We are different. It is now being verified,” Santa Rosa City Schools Superintendent Diann Kitamura said. “We are an outlier. ... That is corroborating that our kids and our teachers have been through hell and back, and we aren’t back yet.”

Wildfires that have canceled class and wreaked havoc every year since 2017, along with power shut-offs, a flood in the west county and now a global pandemic, have led to compounded trauma for Sonoma County students who are now showing signs of mental health struggles, educators said.

With the county unable yet to effectively reduce coronavirus cases and transmission rates that are among the worst in California, Sonoma County public schools have been barred from resuming in-person classes on campuses since mid-March. A private school in Sonoma, The Presentation School, reopened last week and two others, Sonoma Country Day and The Healdsburg School, won approval to resume classes the first week of November. But approximately 68,000 transitional kindergarten-through-12th-grade students have not been inside a classroom or face to face with their teachers in more than six months.

“We have to do something now. This needs to stop,” Healdsburg Unified School District Superintendent Chris Vanden Heuvel said.

“We have friends in other parts of the state, and not to say that their kids aren’t struggling, but it does appear to me that we have got more complex mental health issues and anxieties that we are seeing in our kids right now that is different than in other places,” he said. “You look at seniors and what those kids have gone through for four years — fire after fire, pandemic and a flood. It’s a lot to process.”

And now the coronavirus and the literal halting of normal school and social life has dug some students in deeper, Vanden Heuvel said.

“Basically the world has ended as they knew it,” he said.

For high school students, a failing grade can prevent a student from graduating. With the early warning sounded on progress reports in the first six weeks of school, leaders maintained that changes can be put in place before semester grades are issued in late December.

"One hundred percent, it’s a concern,“ Vanden Heuvel said. ”But there is still time to change to make sure we don’t impact graduation.“

Leaders — superintendents, principals, counselors, teachers and classified staff — from Sonoma County’s 10 high school districts are being invited to an emergency summit hosted by the Sonoma County Office of Education on Tuesday to address the issues. An invitation could be extended to student and parent representatives, county officials said. A second summit — to focus on next steps and implementation — is slated for the first week of December.

“We are going to host a discussion with teacher leaders countywide,” county schools chief Steve Herrington said. “How do we get students engaged in school and engaged with their teachers?”

The lack of a road map for anything like what teachers and students are facing this year has hampered everyone, educators said.

“Our teachers are working so incredibly hard to do everything they can to meet kids where they are, and for some reason it hasn’t taken with kids,” Vanden Heuvel said. “We are here to say, ’Teachers, we know you are the experts. We have your back and want to support you.’ ”

“We need to create some wins for kids soon,” he said.

The poor marks are showing up across the board, from students who have struggled in the past to students who have been at the top of their class for years, leaders said.

“I think it’s affecting everybody,“ Windsor Unified School District Superintendent Jeremy Decker said.

Unlike in the spring, when poor attendance or performance would not lower students’ grades as districts shifted to distance learning, schools are now taking attendance and doling out grades for both participation and work submitted. The wave of poor grades emerging this fall does not seem to rest with attendance, educators said. Kids are showing up, they said, but they are simply not engaging.

"It’s tangible to find kids, it’s intangible to find what is not working,“ Kitamura said. ”We are doing distance teaching, we are not doing distance learning.“

In a letter she sent to parents in the 15,700-student district alerting them to the problem, Kitamura described the challenge as unprecedented in her nearly four-decade career.

“We have to stop, pause and take a look at what we are doing for both faculty and students,” she said. “I don’t want to end this semester in this state.”

Unlike last spring, when relationships were well established before kids and teachers went their separate ways in March, this year teachers have no rapport or history with the students on their rosters.

“A teacher can can get a cue from a kid in front of your face. You can’t get that cue when you don’t see them every day or don’t see them at all,” Kitamura said.

Educators cautioned against pointing the finger at anyone — teachers, students, parents or principals — as the source of the problem.

“Nobody is to blame in this situation,” Decker said. “Everyone is working extremely hard — that’s parents, students and teachers. It’s a byproduct of what we are facing.”

"Let’s not play this blame game. Let’s focus on righting the ship,“ he said.

As Sonoma County languishes in the purple tier, the most restrictive in the state’s coronavirus reopening plan, high schools are prevented from resuming in-person classes. Transitional kindergarten-through-sixth-grade programs can open but only with a state-issued waiver and only under deeply modified classroom and campus conditions.

Education officials warned against viewing a return to classrooms as an immediate solution to the emerging problem. While in-person instruction for high school students is prohibited in the purple tier, even the county’s eventual move to the next stage of reopening, allowed when it reaches the red tier, would only permit a hybrid model that combines continued distance learning with some in-person classes on campus.

But the hybrid formula is being viewed with increasing skepticism among educators. To prevent large outbreaks when middle and high school students return to campus, schools must divide them into small groups of between 12 and 14 students. These groups, or cohorts, must take all of their classes together to minimize their contact with other students. Administrators are beginning to wonder aloud how they can build schedules for middle and high school students — with multiple class switches per day — while limiting exposure.

And even if the county advances into the red tier and schools implement a hybrid plan, distance learning — and all of its associated impacts related to social isolation and lack of academic engagement — will remain a piece of the educational plan.

“I don’t think there is a panacea with hybrid,“ Vanden Heuvel said.

Despite the pervasiveness of the problem, Vanden Heuvel said there was some relief that districts will be joining forces to tackle it.

“There is a little bit of comfort in knowing we are not doing it alone,“ he said.

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

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