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 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.’ ”