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Students in Sonoma County's most remote school district cope with loss of routine, lack of internet amid pandemic

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For more stories on how Sonoma County educators are making a difference during the coronavirus crisis, go here.

A van pulls up to a small, one-room schoolhouse in the northernmost reaches of Sonoma County every Monday morning, packed with a week’s worth of meals for about 25 children who live on the Stewarts Point Rancheria.

The driver, Enrique Sanchez, is the director of emergency services for the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians, a proud but private tribe with about 860 members scattered throughout the North Coast.

Sanchez devotes much of his Monday each week to haul 150 meals roughly 60 miles from the Santa Rosa City Schools Child Nutrition Services facility to Kashia Elementary. Once they arrive at the school in Stewarts Point, faculty members organize the meals, which consist of breakfast, lunch and a daily snack for five days, before they’re distributed to the families.

Distance learning in far-flung towns beyond Sonoma County’s central corridor has required help from people outside the school community who are willing to contribute their efforts during the coronavirus stay-at-home order.

Transporting food is a no-brainer for the Kashia Tribal Council, which authorized the meal assistance and other measures to help local students, said tribe administrator Vaughn Pena. It ensures the 12 children enrolled in the K-8 school — and their siblings — remain fed with every campus closed countywide and education now handled remotely for the rest of the school year.

“Whatever they need, in terms of food, supplies, transportation — whatever — we’re here to step up for the kids,” Pena said.

Last week the tribal council also opened up the reservation’s community center for Kashia Elementary students so they can complete their schoolwork, which is provided using paper packets and Google Chromebook laptops.

Frances Johnson, the superintendent, principal and a teacher at Kashia Elementary School District, said every student has either no internet access or a limited signal at home, making it difficult to just stay connected, let alone complete coursework online.

Stewarts Point is one of several rural Sonoma County communities that lack internet access, or cellphone coverage strong enough to use hot spots that can convert the network signal into wireless internet.

The switch to distance learning last month rekindled local discussions on the so-called digital divide, and the disparate technological capacities between Sonoma County communities along Highway 101 and those in remote areas.

The Kashia council debated the reservation’s lack of internet access at a recent meeting, and is now working with county leaders to get the infrastructure for broadband built by the end of the year, Pena said. However, so far no formal agreements have been made.

The community center is one of the few places on the reservation with reliable internet service, at least for the rest of the school year.

“We’ve managed to put some math programs on Chromebooks and other (English) programs,” said Johnson, a contracted administrator through the Sonoma County Office of Education. “But the internet at their homes is skimpy to say the least.”

Opening the community center came with a few rules, Pena said. Each student has to be chaperoned by a parent, who makes sure they wear masks, wash their hands every hour and disinfect any surfaces they touched before leaving.

Families are using a staggered schedule to avoid overlap, and workstations are being arranged under social distancing requirements so no one comes within 6 feet of another person, Pena said.

“We’re just making sure that the kids have access to resources for their education,” he said.

Kashia Elementary is a linchpin for the fewer than 100 people who live on the Stewarts Point reservation, even though it’s located outside the boundaries. The curriculum emphasizes environmental and cultural teachings, but is more akin to a traditional classroom than a typical tribal school.

Still, it’s seen as a vital method for shaping the future of the tribe, and the children who will become stewards of the nearly 700 acres of ancestral lands along the coast that were added to the reservation in 2015, Johnson said.

That makes the tight-knit community’s efforts during the distance learning era that much more important. Kashia is the lowest-funded district in Sonoma County, with an operating budget that fluctuates between $300,000 and $400,000. Roughly 93% of students are deemed socioeconomically disadvantaged by the California Department of Education, which means they either qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch, or have a parent who did not receive a high school diploma.

Maintaining the education of this specific generation is critical, Johnson said, and with some assistance from Kashia leadership, lousy internet service and closed cafeterias won’t be a barrier.

“The school is so important,” she said. “It’s the one way we’re going to pull the community up.”

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

For more stories on how Sonoma County educators are making a difference during the coronavirus crisis, go here.

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