After Fire's Tragedy Teachers Ask: How Do I Get to Normal?

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Amy Jones-Kerr takes a picture of a Sonoma County school ravaged by wildfire. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

Editor's note: This story contains a correction.

In the center of the destroyed school stands the burnt-out basketball court, and just beyond is the blackened playground. There are no walls to the school left, so Amy Jones-Kerr stares at the pile of overturned kindergarten chairs and desks that once was her daughter's classroom. This is what's left at Hidden Valley Satellite School near Fountaingrove in Santa Rosa. Oddly untouched is the map of the world, painted in pink and blue on playground asphalt.

The surrounding neighborhood, where local students lived, has also burned down.

Jones-Kerr is feeling the fire's aftermath on several fronts. She lives just over the hill from here, so she's taking photos of homes for friends she knows live nearby. And she is the Roseland School District superintendent, who has lost a school of her own to the fire: Roseland Collegiate Prep with 430 students.

"Five of our campuses are OK, which is fortunate. So as a team we have worked together as to how we are going to accommodate those 430 students for now," Jones-Kerr said. "We're just jumping in and seeing what we can do to get more students on some of our campuses."


Roseland Collegiate Prep is the next school stop on this police-escorted tour Friday of Sonoma County schools hit by the fires. Jones-Kerr walks around the school, trying to hold it together as she picks up a football from the grounds. It's emotional because teachers themselves also have had their lives overturned by the fire. Sonoma County schools reported Monday that close to 212 teachers and support staff, such as custodians, lunchroom workers and bus drivers, have lost homes. They expect that number to rise as larger districts, such as Santa Rosa City Schools, report in.

"We have about 10 faculty members who have lost their homes, including a principal. And about half of my staff is displaced all over," said Jones-Kerr. "But we are still coming together for the kids and my staff to figure out what we as a unit can do."

Then she starts taking video on her phone of the burnt-out high school. She knows she will need "before and after" photos to show FEMA if she wants to file a claim for reimbursement as she rebuilds.

Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steven Herrington says getting schools reopened means cleaning ash and smoke out of schools and possibly bringing in portable buildings from other parts of the state. There is also a plan to bus kids from shelters back to their schools, and to provide mental heath counseling in the shelters. Students living in shelters or anywhere outside their home district can attend school where they are, said Herrington, if they can't return to their old school.

State Superintendent Tom Torklakson, left, toured destroyed schools in Sonoma. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

All of this poses challenges for local school leaders, who know one of the best things they could do to help their students is to get them back to some kind of normalcy. In a meeting of Sonoma County superintendents, Herrington -- who helps provide support to all 40 individual school districts in the county -- told the group that outside of home and family, what most kids know best is their school and their teacher.

"Anything we can do to get them back will help," Herrington said.  Most schools remain closed this week.

Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction, and Herrington are crunching over rubble, talking about how to get more state and federal funding to these schools. Torlakson acknowledged that teachers impacted by the fire will likely add to the statewide teacher shortage. He said finding affordable housing for displaced staff is also something he's concerned about.

After Fire’s Tragedy Teachers Ask: How Do I Get to Normal?

After Fire’s Tragedy Teachers Ask: How Do I Get to Normal?

"This is a daunting challenge. So many of the teachers have lost their own homes. And to be able to rebuild, we don't know that all of them will have the financial means," said Torlakson. "We have a teacher shortage already. It's a crisis around the state,  and this exacerbates it significantly.  The Legislature in this last session passed some bills to provide housing for teachers, so some of those dollars can go to work faster than we want. We need to go back to the Legislature and ask for more help."

Herrington reports that Santa Rosa has lost 5 percent of its housing stock and the county has lost another 5 percent, which doesn't include the unincorporated areas.

Trying to reopen is even trickier for schools serving as shelters for those displaced. They would need to find a way to cordon off adults from students, if classes were to resume. Several superintendents were serving meals to shelter families with the help of school cooks and staff. As of Monday evening, however, Herrington says just one district school is serving as a shelter, Elsie Allen High School in Santa Rosa.

As schools prepare for reopening, Herrington told his superintendents to first begin gathering staff to talk and grieve and share their stories, and then start the planning on how to talk to students about this tragedy after they do return to classes. After schools are determined to be environmentally safe, and only then, can schools begin to welcome students back.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the location of Roseland College Prep. The story has been corrected.