On Aug. 31, West Side School Principal and Superintendent Kris Menlove was finally able to return to the West Side campus on Felta Road after the evacuation orders for the Westside Road and West Dry Creek areas were downgraded following the continued containment of the Walbridge Fire.
And while Menlove has been working on coordinating clean-up efforts for the campus so teachers can get back to conducting Zoom lessons from the comfort of their classrooms, Menlove has also been focused on making sure West Side families, many of whom were displaced by the fire, have information about community resources and mental health resources.
“Families on Mill Creek were heavily impacted. A board member lost their home and families have been displaced,” Menlove said.
West Side had its first day of school — distance learning style — on Aug. 18, but then had to close for two days on Aug. 20 and 21 due to the fire. School resumed via distance learning on Aug. 24.
“We reopened on the 24th and (in addition to distance learning) are focused on helping families and focused on making connections with other kids,” Menlove said.
Before the school year started, a flyer with information on how to help children recover from trauma was sent out to parents in both English and Spanish and the school’s psychologist, Matt Park, has been providing helping information for parents on the West Side website (westsideusd.org).
According to information made available from the Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE) and the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), the devastation from a wildfire can be long-lasting and distressing for children.
With wildfires an entire community is often impacted, which can undermine a child’s sense of normalcy and security.
Signs of distress can include thumb sucking, bedwetting, clinginess, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, fear of the dark and regression in behavior for preschoolers, irritability, aggressiveness, nightmares, poor concentration, school avoidance and withdrawal from activities and friends in elementary school children.
In older kids and adolescents, distress can manifest itself as trouble with eating and sleeping, agitation, poor concentration and delinquent behavior.
Since children often look to adults for guidance on how to manage their reactions, NASP recommends a few things parents and teachers can do to help children:
● Parents and teachers remain calm and reassuring.
● Acknowledge and normalize a student's feelings by giving children time to ask questions and discuss the event.
● Promote positive coping methods and problem solving skills and to emphasize children’s resiliency.
In addition to these resources, Menlove said Park can do individual sessions with students or additional outreach to families if needed. Menlove said they call Park the “psychologist extraordinaire” since he’s also the psychologist for Santa Rosa City Schools and has a wealth of information. During the fire, some teachers also made Zoom space available for students who wanted to talk or share their feelings.
“Because West Side is so geared toward relationships, we felt it was important that families knew that teachers and office staff were available. There were teachers who held a Zoom space open and said students could come and hang out and chat. It was really helpful for families to know that the school was there for them,” Menlove said.
West Side also worked with Corazón Healdsburg to make sure displaced families had access to important resources like food and supplies and were aware of the temporary evacuation points.
Menlove said she is thankful for the support from other West Side families and for all of the hard work from the first responders.
“I can’t say enough about the first responders and our families who have stepped up to help other families ... Through hardship there are some really beautiful examples of compassion,” she said.
Healdsburg Unified School District mental health resources
The Healdsburg Unified School District (HUSD) also has mental health and community resources available for students and their families in response to the Walbridge Fire.
Due to COVID-19 and the wildfires, HUSD has created a confidential mental health wellness warmline for families. Families can call 707-431-3117 for emotional support and or resources from a school psychologist or a licensed clinical social worker.
The HUSD website also provides links to crisis resources from the Community Action Partnership, the Child Parent Institute and the Early Learning Institute. To view their list of resources and information, visit: https://www.husd.com/pf4/cms2/view_page?d=x&group_id=1531973298149&vdid=i23e1xaj8199.
School psychologists can also make individual virtual appointments with students if needed.
Alexander Valley School mental health resources
The Alexander Valley School (AVS) has also posted available resources for students and their families on http://alexandervalleyusd.org/.
“The last several days have brought additional unrest and challenge to all of us as we continue to carefully monitor the presence of the Walbridge Fire. Fresh memories of what we dealt with last year are becoming all too familiar. We know this is not an easy time and hope you and your family continue to be safe under the current conditions,” said AVS Principal and Superintendent Matt Reno in an Aug. 25 letter to AVS families.
In the same letter to the AVS community, Reno provided links to SCOE resources that can help parents with parenting in challenging times, managing time at home with kids, and helping kids manage stress.
Since the school’s distance learning day was cancelled on Aug. 20, the district will be adding an additional day on Jan. 4, 2021, which was originally scheduled to be a non-student workday.