Wildfires and COVID-19: How schools are trying to heal trauma from a distance

At the crack of dawn on the first day of school, Mike Geluardi drove to campus to record a video message. The school board president from California’s Bonny Doon Union Elementary School District hoped his analogy would resonate with teachers as they dove into what would be a challenging year like no other: He, his sole administrator and the teachers of the small, one-school district were like Odysseus and his crew facing the monster of coronavirus.

But they would get through it together, come what may, he told his staff at the time. And his crew would make it to their home that was normalcy. 

And then the fires came,” Geluardi told Education Dive.

The blazing wildfires of the West Coast, compounded with the pandemic, have created a crisis like no other, “a challenge of a lifetime” that Geluardi said has engulfed swaths of homes, including many in his district, and created collective trauma for communities.  

Some school board members report feeling helpless against the dual crises and are trying to stave off long-term and widespread damage to their communities while dealing with their own heightened emotions. Superintendents are having to make critical decisions at a moment’s notice on dwindling budgets, while uplifting families, students and teachers.

And some teachers are caught between evacuation orders and constantly changing models of learning, while sometimes putting their own trauma aside to tend to students’ needs. 

Through it all, schools remain the stalwart of the community, those in the thick of it say, finding ways to function as the backbone that many are depending on to keep the community upright during the turmoil  in some cases, quite literally sheltering residents by serving as evacuation sites while the fires spread. 

Seeing school ‘through a different set of lenses’ 

La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District, located in California’s San Mateo County, was three days into the school year when the fires burned a chunk of learning centers  sites where students without home Wi-Fi could gather to complete schoolwork  — it had organized on ranches. 

As a result of that and the spike in COVID-19 cases following an emergency evacuation, the district is back to full remote learning with uneven Wi-Fi access and no learning hubs. Many families have also lost their homes and the area is facing a housing shortage, La Honda-Pescadero School Board President Mary Windram said.  

“It’s all tied together,” she added. “It’s overwhelming at times. So where do you start?”

To buffer the upheaval on families and ease the anxiety around learning loss, Windram envisions shifting curriculum and educating parents “to see school through a different set of lenses.” Instruction would not be “one size fits all,” but individualized and project-based, with more student voice. Wildfires could be in the curriculum and tweaked according to grade level. Skills taught would include resiliency, self-advocacy, perseverance, critical thinking, kindness and service, and following one’s passions. Progress would be measured based on the students’ individual growth over the course of a year. 

“We could be changing our curriculum [to be relevant] and still meeting standards in some ways,” she said. “But that requires a mind shift.”  

Training teachers to navigate trauma

Alisha Bazzano, a teacher of 22 years from Middletown Unified School District, also in California, stopped midway through distributing Chromebooks when mandatory evacuation sirens sounded on Aug. 19.

“Year after year, having to evacuate and go through this: Is your house standing or is your house not standing? And then being called by multiple agencies saying, ‘We’re trying everything we can, but your house is going tonight,'” Bazzano said of the experiences of she and her colleagues. “There are so many emotional pieces that we can’t deal with because we need to provide for our students.” 

But in Bonny Doon, which experienced fires for the first time, Superintendent Mike Heffner knows “you can’t have traumatized teachers teaching traumatized students.” He focused on supporting the social and emotional well-being of his staff, which included employing a three-week virtual professional development class everyone, including himself, took every other day.

“Each time we would stop after we processed [the trauma] ourselves and then we would take it to the meta-cognitive level,” Heffner said. “We would talk about how we would do this with our students and tweaks that we would be making at the different grade levels.” 

In Middletown, where fires have recurred since 2015, School Board President Misha Grothe said the district is having a difficult time finding nurses and psychologists to care for students. 

“Every fire season, there’s just a sense of anxiety, and the smell of smoke in the air just kind of takes you back,” she said of the communal post-traumatic stress disorder, “and I know that it happens to adults as well as children.”

In the meantime, teachers like Bazzano are helping students navigate emotional outbursts and frustrated parents over Zoom and Google Meets. “We’ve always been counselors,” Bazzano said. 

Partnering to rebuild communities from a distance

Fire season, in the best of circumstances, is a time schools take stock of the aftermath, offer assistance to impacted families where possible, and play a part in the community’s recovery. Education leaders say schools are often a stabilizing force for others in the community, but in the pandemic, it’s been all the more difficult when personal connections have become distanced or virtual.

In Bonny Doon, the district began recovery efforts by checking on their students, over 50% of whom weren’t responsive during online check-ins after emergency evacuations, and reaching out to families to inquire about the state of their homes.

In La Honda-PescaderoWindram said a local partner organization, Puente, has been a saving grace, providing meals, working to get hotel vouchers for families, and specifically reaching out to Latino families, many of whom have also carried trauma from migration to the U.S.  

Heffner also tapped into his community partners during two virtual community town halls, bringing in the county supervisor to give a holistic view and damage updates, representatives from an outside district that previously experienced fires, and others to answer parents’ questions. 

Finding funds to weather economic dip

Not all trauma that lingers is psychological.

“In some other districts that have suffered from wildfires, they haven’t [financially] recovered all the way,” said Geluardi, thinking of where Bonny Doon could be three to five years from now.

Districts he has talked to that have survived fires see lower enrollment and a contracted tax base years later. While many people are relying on administrators to be “incredibly high-functioning right now,” Geluardi said, they’re also being asked to make adjustments “in the middle of crisis when the budget is slammed.” 

The district relies on an in-person annual fundraiser — canceled this year — to provide a lion’s share of its funding, so it has shifted its efforts to crowdsource funds through an online fundraiserThe district is also relying on its healthy reserves, but Geluardi is advocating to get more financial support in the long term.

For districts like Bonny Doon, Geluardi said recovery is a Catch-22 in which the community’s rise from the ashes depends on the school’s success, and the school’s success depends on the community’s comeback. “It’s not an option to just punt.” 

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