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Sonoma County campus leaders tell state schools chief of rising toll from disasters, power outages

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Sonoma County’s top school officials say recurring wildfires and floods in the region and related hardships such as power shut-offs have emptied classrooms, strained resources and hit campus budgets, leaving the educators scrambling for help amid disasters that have upended school schedules year after year.

Since 2017, the county’s public schools together have missed the equivalent of more than four years of instructional days, according to the county’s Office of Education.

School officials say the extended disruptions — stemming from catastrophic fires in 2017 and 2018, floods this year and last, and PG&E’s expanding scope of power outages — have dealt a severe blow to the education of local students.

The state has been caught flatfooted in the crisis, educators say.

That was the message Friday to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, who met in Santa Rosa with most of the county’s 40 district superintendents to learn about their experience facing disasters in the past two years.

Santa Rosa City Schools Superintendent Diann Kitamura told Thurmond that closing schools in a county with a large working-class population goes beyond simply a loss of school hours.

“I have a real concern that when I close schools, 54% of my students probably have nowhere to go,” she said. “They don’t get to go get a hotel. They don’t get to have a vacation.”

The loss of instructional time in Sonoma County has been staggering in the past three school years.

Since 2017, because of natural disasters and power shut-offs, local schools have collectively missed about 786 days in the classroom, according to Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steven Herrington. The typical school year is 180 days.

The loss has forced educators to restructure lessons to ease re-entry for returning students, said Brandon Krueger, superintendent of Windsor Unified School District.

“We don’t want this to be a ‘catch up on everything we lost in two weeks,’” he said in an interview, referring to changes made in the wake of the Kincade fire that menaced Windsor and shut schools countywide last week. “We want this to be, ‘How do we reset and logically and comfortably get back into the rigor of the curriculum?’”

California needs to do better to respond to the new era of challenges faced by schools, Thurmond said. “I’ll be blunt. A lot of policy decisions are made by non-educators that aren’t hearing the perspective of what’s needed in classrooms,” Thurmond said in the meeting at the county Office of Education. “The impact on students has to always be at the center of everything we do. I just think there are other systems that aren’t thinking about that, especially when they don’t (come and) ask what you need.”

Identifying a way to make up for lost classroom time was the most pressing issue for area educators.

In a letter to state congressional leaders Monday, Herrington requested their support for a bill that would fund a disaster relief summer school program that districts could voluntarily participate in if they missed five or more days in one year.

On Friday, Herrington also mentioned a possible switch to a year-round school calendar, with a nine-week instruction period followed by three weeks of break. October, which typically marks the peak of wildfire season in the North Bay, would fall in a break.

Other superintendents suggested lengthening school days to make up lost time in the given school year.

“We have to think about calendars differently,” said Bruce Harter, deputy state superintendent of operations, who accompanied Thurmond for the visit. “A day made up in June is not the same in October. We need to think about how we put our calendars together so that we have extra time.”

Local students and school employees cycled through traumatic experiences in the past two years, with repeated disasters and evacuations that have touched nearly every corner of the county.

Staff members at Windsor and Healdsburg schools spent the first half of the week participating in training to prepare for children that have already shown some symptoms of post-traumatic stress, said Healdsburg Superintendent Chris Vanden Heuvel.

“We anticipate there will be more,” he said.

Both cities were in the path of the Kincade fire and were evacuated last month in the largest mass evacuation in county history. Firefighters were able to halt the blaze before it swept over both communities, where school only resumed in the middle of this week.

“From what we’re hearing from our experts is it takes time (to show up),” Vanden Heuvel said about the signs of trauma. “Everybody is getting back in the normal routine, but the stress and realities are going to hit down the road. So it’s important to be ready and poised for those situations.”

Of all the hardships to befall local schools this year, PG&E’s power shut-offs have had the broadest impact. With no power, many well outside of traditional wildfire zones have canceled classes.

Last fall, while no catastrophic blazes burned locally, smoke from the Camp fire in Butte County — 160 miles away — forced most local campuses to close.

Essential equipment for schools now includes fortified air conditioning systems and backup power generators, both costly for campuses on lean budgets.

The state needs to make sure schools have the ability to keep the lights on amid widespread power cuts to stem wildfire risk, state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said in an interview.

He lashed out at PG&E, faulting it for the impacts it has had on schools and families, and called on his fellow state leaders to force PG&E to create micro grids so schools can stay in session.

“Big picture, we have to force PG&E’s to become much more strategic and pinpoint any potential outages versus the meat cleaver approach that they’ve been taking over the past weeks,” he said.

Geyserville’s small district, with two schools, symbolizes the difficulties that natural disasters have spawned for local educators. Superintendent Deborah Bertolucci said firefighters were able to protect the two campuses, although some of the grounds did burn. The smoke damage has led to a lengthy reopening process she hopes will be complete by Tuesday.

With school budgets tied to property tax revenues and enrollment, the lingering concern is that repeated disasters will force out families that are vital in small school communities. After the 2017 fires, Santa Rosa, the county’s largest district, lost roughly 700 students, McGuire noted.

Thurmond and McGuire both said Friday that they intend to safeguard budgets of affected districts, backfilling lost revenue. Thurmond, who is in his first year in office, said he would adding local officials to a committee shaping policy on school needs due to natural disasters.

“We’re going to make you whole. We’re not going to make you jump through a hoop,” he said.

McGuire, a former Healdsburg schools trustee, said he’s been able to secure three-year protections for every impacted school agency in his North Coast district over the past four years.

“That’s been a concern that we’ve seen dating all the back to 2015 in Lake County,” McGuire said. “School budgets have been heavily impacted by these devastating fires.”

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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