Kristie Summerrill immediately began texting her kindergartners’ parents to check if they were safe as the CZU Lightning Complex fires forced mass evacuations in Bonny Doon, the rural community northwest of Santa Cruz where the elementary school had just recently begun online instruction.
Many of her kindergartners’ families, some who’d lost their homes to wildfire, were sheltering at the Chaminade Resort & Spa in Santa Cruz, a mom told Summerrill. So the teacher and her husband drove their van to the hotel armed with seven bags filled with snacks, water, food, games and supplies, unsure if it would even be of any help or comfort to families without homes.
“The moment she (the mom) opened the door and saw me standing there with those bags she fell into my arms,” Summerrill said, choking up.
In California, dozens of schools are grappling with massive wildfires that have wreaked disruption on the lives and education of tens of thousands of students that had already been disrupted by a global pandemic.
The 625 or so fires burning across the state have shattered records for their devastation and left community institutions, such as public schools, to deal with the residual effects. Even as the vast majority of California schools remain physically shuttered, fires burning across multiple counties have forced schools to cancel instruction through distance learning, halted plans to distribute necessary technology and supplies and pushed back the first day of instruction for some schools.
Wildfires have taken a heavy toll on California schools over the past six years, but never to this degree this early in the academic year. More than 70,000 California students have been impacted by temporary halts to distance learning, according to a CalMatters tally. Some schools in affected areas have yet to begin their first day of instruction.
Many students and teachers have temporarily evacuated their communities. An unknown number of them have lost their homes, adding to the 8,000 or so California educators and kids displaced by fire since 2015.
In Sonoma and Lake counties, schools and communities repeatedly hit by fires and floods once again had to cancel classes amid evacuation orders.
Schools in Solano County, also affected by evacuations, canceled instruction. Some schools also couldn’t distribute computers for distance learning because they didn’t have enough N95 masks to protect employees from hazardous smoke choking the air across multiple Bay Area counties.
In Bonny Doon, Summerrill and her kindergarten and transitional kindergarten students were just three days into the children’s first introduction to school — learning proper Zoom etiquette, building relationships — when school came to a halt.
Rolling blackouts, lightning storms … now wildfires
First, rolling blackouts and lightning storms took out power and internet access in Bonny Doon, making distance learning impossible for the school of 160 students.
Then, the fires came.
“The kids are confused because we spent three days online doing our Zoom meetings, and now that’s gone away,” Summerrill said of her tots. “Now, they’re staying at friends’ houses or hotels. They’re not understanding why there is no school right now.”
Meanwhile, empty high school campuses in Vacaville Unified, a district of 13,500 students, became evacuation centers as people fled the fires making up the LNU Lightning Complex. James Buescher, an assistant principal at Buckingham Charter Magnet High School in Vacaville, set up an online fundraiser for the school principal who lost her home to fire and is coordinating gift card donations for two students who also lost their homes.
Though classes in the district resumed online on Aug. 24, several Buckingham students could be without reliable internet access for at least a month because the fires burned some cell towers just outside the city limits, Buescher said. In response, the district has ordered more hotspots and is exploring ways to bring back affected students on campus to do distance learning.
“If you would’ve told me a year ago what this year would have looked like, I would have just laughed,” Buescher said.
In the neighboring Fairfield-Suisun district, fires and hazardous air quality have pushed back efforts to distribute computers to students multiple times, according to Tim Goree, Fairfield-Suisun’s executive director for administrative services and community engagement.
The district only has 330 N95 masks, which Goree said was an insufficient amount to protect employees on the distribution front lines while rationing them for a potential return for in-person instruction.
“When you combine all of these different issues — COVID and fires and air quality — it makes some things almost impossible to do,” Goree said.
The Bonny Doon school remains untouched by the fires, largely thanks to efforts from “community heroes” who banded together to protect the campus from flames, said Mike Heffner, the principal and superintendent. A water tanker sits outside the campus in case shifting winds threaten the school again.
In the days since evacuating, Heffner, Summerrill and other teachers have been calling and texting families, trying to account for everyone’s safety and tallying how many have lost their homes. Instruction at Bonny Doon, which temporarily closed last year due to public safety power shutoffs, will be pushed back at least until Aug. 31. Heffner, however, said he is unsure of when school will resume — either online or in person — noting that the school buildings have likely sustained significant smoke damage “that will make them uninhabitable for a while.”
Many students will likely need computer replacements, Heffner said, urging the public to donate to the school’s community foundation.
“We’re going to come back stronger, but I don’t think it’s going to happen as quickly as any of us hope,” Heffner said.
Holiday Smith, a sixth-grade teacher at Bonny Doon, rushed to evacuate her family, horses, pets and chickens “within sight of very tall, enormous flames” from their homes in Last Chance, a remote unincorporated area further northwest of Bonny Doon.
At the evacuation center in the Watsonville fairgrounds, Smith has tried connecting with her students. She and another teacher lost their houses. Smith is amazed at the resilience she’s seen in her students, but worries about how the disasters will affect their mental health. For more than five months, Bonny Doon students have been away from their teachers and each other.
Later in the school year, Smith’s curriculum included plans to teach her sixth-graders about climate change and the human impacts on the environment. Now, Smith and her students are experiencing the realities of that curriculum.
“It’s unconscionable what we’ve done to the young. It’s not their fault, and we’re destroying their planet,” Smith said. “I’m 42 years old, I’ve got plenty of life left. But I think about my students and I think about what they’re going to go through their whole lives and their lifetime with the (climate change) crisis that we’ve created and it just does not feel like there is the urgency that there should be to be combating this crisis.”
CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.