Analy and El Molino

Emotional trauma, as well as challenges of distance learning, cited as issues

High school students are struggling at new levels locally, and while distance learning in the time of COVID-19 is a piece of the puzzle, the emotional trauma of four years of fires, floods, evacuations, power shutoffs and now the pandemic is playing a larger role than previously realized.

At a seminar organized and hosted by the Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE) on Oct. 27, teachers, administrators and county education staff came together to discuss the alarming statistics and concerns about the mental health of students and teachers. In addition to discussions and “break out groups,” participants watched videos from students describing their challenges and fears.

Members of the media were not allowed to observe the seminar, but they met over Zoom with participants after the fact.

The seminar

“(I) knew people were struggling all over the county but to look at the hard numbers and data and be reminded how much trauma these kids have endured over the years,” said Pete Stefanisko, teacher at Windsor High School and president of the Windsor District Educators Association. “No high school senior has had a normal school year; their entire high school experience has been interrupted. So, they have all this in the background and now they don’t have normal things to relieve school stress, no parties with friends or bumping into someone at school.”

According to a statement from SCOE, three superintendents: Diann Kitimura from Santa Rosa City Schools, Jeremy Decker from Windsor Unified Schools District and Chris Vanden Huevel from Healdsburg Unified School District initially raised the alarm about grades, but it soon became apparent that the problem went beyond those three districts.

“When the superintendents from Healdsburg, Windsor and Santa Rosa came to share their concerns about the stress, anxiety and grades they were seeing at the beginning of this school year, I was glad to help them take immediate action by hosting this summit. Our goal is to work alongside the districts and support their efforts to find short and long-term solutions for this crisis.  I thank everyone who attended for their leadership and commitment to addressing these issues head-on,” said Sonoma County Superintendent Dr. Steve Herrington in a statement.

Herrington was not on the Zoom call with the media, but those on the call included: from Santa Rosa City Schools, Kitamura, superintendent, Beth Berk, communications coordinator, Will Lyon, teacher, SRTA president, Hollie Retzinger, teacher, Jim LaFrance, teacher and Eric Lofchie, mental health clinical supervisor; from Healdsburg: Vanden Heuvel, superintendent, Bill Halliday, principal, Kelly Mace, counselor, Jamie Atwood, teacher and Andrew Kempiak, teacher; from Windsor: Decker, superintendent and Stefanisko and from SCOE, Dr. Jennie Snyder, deputy superintendent of instruction.

What the numbers say

SCOE collected aggregate data from 10 high school districts in October 2020: Cloverdale, Cotati-Rohnert Park, Geyserville, Healdsburg, Petaluma, Sonoma Valley, Roseland, Santa Rosa, West Sonoma County and Windsor.

According to SCOE, the current high school enrollment for the 2020-21 school year is 19,201. Of those, 7,149 had one or more failing grades as of fall progress reports/first quarter grades in October 2020. In 2019-20, 19,038 students had a total of 5,125 students receiving a one or more F.

county grade chart

Percentage wise, across all high schoolers in the county, 37% currently have a failing grade, compared to 27% last year. Broken down by class, it appears ninth and 10th graders are having the hardest time, with 40% having at least one F, compared to 27% for ninth graders and 31% for 10th graders last year. Thirty-seven percent of 11th graders have at least one F compared to 27% last year. Seniors (12th graders) have the best scores, with a 31% failing rate, compared to 23% last year.

Two of the districts, Cotati-Rohnert Park and Geyserville were outliers, showing fewer failing grades than in the previous year, but both of those districts are using a different style of curriculum, with students taking only three courses a semester, rather then the five or six of the other districts, which means fewer potential grades to get.

Decker also referenced that Latinx students seemed to be struggling more.

“The Latinx population is being significantly more impacted than other students, so obviously that’s a huge concern, and that seemed to be pretty consistent county wide,” said Decker.

Traumatized students

Prior to this seminar, SCOE had released the findings of a survey by the group YouthTruth in May 2020. The survey of 4,500 Sonoma County high school students found that “71% reported feeling anxious about the future.”  This anxiety was listed as the number one barrier to effective distance learning. According to SCOE, YouthTruth performed similar surveys in eight states, and these findings were unique to Sonoma County.

“This finding that Sonoma County students have an unparalleled sense of anxiety about their futures is a further call to action and SCOE’s convening will be focusing on how to support students — and staff — emotionally as well as academically,” said SCOE in a statement prior to the seminar.

Participants also watched a video put together with students from around the county, where they detailed the problems and challenges they were having, both with the specifics of distance learning and the times we are living in.

The video can be viewed here.

The video showed emerging themes across districts, something Lyon felt was helpful from a morale perspective.

“It’s valuable to see other districts are having the same problems we’re having, that this isn’t because we’re a bad teacher or we work in a bad district,” he said. “The other takeaway for me was how much of our work that turns out to be important for students but doesn’t show up on the report card. The YouthTruth (survey showed what a small) percentage of students connected to their community at school. We have colors and mascots and dances and clubs and football and the classroom is a community and that’s one of the things that’s really hard; the absence of all that extracurricular is having an effect on those grades. How to build that stuff back in was a point of discussion in my group, and it has to be part of the solution going forward.”

“I’m really focused on building space so my teachers can be more available to students,” Decker said. “(Student) anxiety can go down by having conversations with a teacher they know and respect. The rub is finding space in the day.”

“As we’re trying to come up with solutions, the biggest impediment is not necessarily a lack of resources but, that it all has to happen remotely. We’re working on that, my high school principal has done home visits,” said Vanden Huevel.

What’s next?

SCOE will be hosting another seminar of Nov. 5 and the superintendents in attendance all said they would be having meetings with their own district teams prior to that meeting. While no final decisions were made, a lot of ideas came forward that attendees were interested to explore and share.

“We don’t want to lower rigor in classrooms and we’re struggling to figure out how to address student’s needs and not lower rigor,” said Retzinger. “In our departments we’ve gone through and chosen the standards we want to focus on, and now we need to figure out how going to adapt grading practices. My concern isn’t that teachers are lowering rigor my concern is to figure out how to maintain rigor but meet students where they’re at.”

“The questions asking you are same asking are the same (we were),” said Kitamura. “But what was hugely important to superintendents is that it not come from the top down. This has to be done with teachers and students and parents, it shouldn’t be done to them. We are brainstorming ways in which to shift or transform that for parents and students and today we started.”

(2) comments


When one of our high-schoolers was having trouble doing his assignments, an adult would sit at the same table doing something for a half hour or 45 minutes. It really helped him center. I realize parents can't do that now but I wonder if some of us who do have the time could commit to a 45 minute Zoom session with a teen twice a week . How might we organize such a thing?


Maybe it is time (past time?) to rethink about what we are teaching our kids. Maybe if the information they are receiving were more relevant to their lives and to the world today, they would take more interest and do a better job of learning. I suspect some teachers already know this and are adjusting their curriculum accordingly. But I also know that they have to teach to the "standards." Maybe we need to adjust the standards. I don't mean lower them, just make them more relevant.

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