Distance learning challenged by Glass fire evacuations

By Kyle Wu, editor

The recent Sonoma County evacuations caused by the Glass Fire forced schools to temporarily close and posed great psychological challenges that made it difficult for students and teachers to continue distance learning. 

According to Maria Carrillo High School Principal Katie Barr, the school’s priority immediately after the evacuations of around 70,000 Sonoma County residents starting Sep. 27 was to get information on students and staff. Because the Glass Fire had seemed to spontaneously “show up,” Barr received no prior alerts, and acted based on the wildfire alerts sent to mobile devices.

In the first 24 hours following the evacuations, the school focused on obtaining information about students through teacher surveys and student needs assessments. Barr said that after gathering the initial information, an advisory committee composed of department chairs at MCHS reviewed protocols used in the Tubbs Fire to determine the next steps for the school. 

The evacuations made it difficult for many teachers to continue distance learning. According to MCHS “Living Earth” and zoology teacher Gale Ligotti, all her classes were put on pause as she spent a hectic first night living in a CVS parking lot and the next couple days in a hotel with unreliable internet access, unable to connect with her students.

On top of the stress she experienced of having to evacuate in the middle of the night, she believes the greatest challenge is the immense psychological stress of evacuating.

“It’s completely unrealistic to stay focused on what you need to do when you don’t even know if your house will still be here,” said Ligotti. 

Students also experienced the same emotional struggles. MCHS junior Thomas Liao, whose family refused to evacuate on account of them being on the edge of the evacuation zone, even took shifts during the night in order to try and protect their home, which they had lost during the 2017 Tubbs Fire. He acknowledges that even though he probably could have continued his school work with his generator and uninterruptible power supply, his school work became a “very low priority” for him.

“When you’re worried about a fire destroying your house, what assignment is due next period tends to be shifted to the bottom of your mind,” said Liao. “You don’t really think about what you could do to get your work done.”

Barr concurred. She admits that given the current distance learning model, it would have been possible to continue supporting distance learning. Yet she also acknowledges that this would have been “overwhelming” to many. Because of the “large scale” and the sheer number of families affected by the evacuations, Barr said that it would be “unfair to struggling students” to continue distance learning, especially those who don’t have access to the Internet.

The school is currently working to alleviate the challenges posed by the evacuations. The administration temporarily set up a relief center at the MCHS campus, offering food, shelter, and even insurance services for impacted families through Oct. 18.

Barr said that the school is also working on developing counseling services for students. They are currently working on small counseling sessions via Zoom and are considering bringing back small groups of students to campus who need additional “face to face support.” 

“It’s so important to see other people you know and to have a third party adult with you,” said Barr.

Ligotti agrees. She is not concerned with the lost instruction time and is trying to be “kind to students coming back.” She empathizes with her students and is working to find new activities to “build bridges” and support her students.

“We need to continue to support each other. That’s how we’re gonna get through this,” said Ligotti.

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