Debra Sanders has spent the past five years providing guidance and comfort to Sonoma County’s homeless students, helping them navigate the school system and claim their rights to an education. Then, last week, she became homeless herself.
Sanders, her husband, and her 11-year-old son lost their home in the fires that roared through the Wine Country. Like many of the students she serves, she and her family are now living “doubled up” with another family because they lack a home of their own.
“Sometimes we can only relate to what we’ve experienced ourselves,” she said. “But for us, this is all temporary. It will resolve. For so many families who were renters or already living on the margins, it’s not going to resolve. At least not anytime soon.”
Sanders returned to work Monday at the Sonoma County Office of Education, where she is the coordinator for homeless education and foster youth, and is now busy helping the thousands of Sonoma County families suddenly left homeless by the fires—all while trying to secure housing for her own family.
She’s not alone. Teachers, administrators, and parents—many of whom either lost their own homes or are hosting families who did—are working to prepare for the gradual re-opening of schools in fire-ravaged areas of Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino counties. Some schools began welcoming back students on last Monday, but others closer to the fire zones will remain closed at least through this week.
And some will never re-open, because they burned to the ground.
California is already grappling with a growing number of students left homeless by the soaring cost of housing. Since 2014, the number of homeless students in California has jumped 20 percent, to just over 202,000. As the cost of living continues to climb, those numbers are expected to grow. While 85 percent of those children are living with their families “doubled up” in homes with other families, thousands are living in cars, motels, shelters, or on the street.
In the North Bay, families who were already struggling will have an especially difficult time finding housing if they were displaced by the fires, said Sanders, the Sonoma County Office of Education’s homeless coordinator.
Renters, those who lack insurance, and low-income families might be forced to leave the area entirely—Sonoma County already had a residential vacancy rate of less than 2 percent, and average home prices close to $600,000.
Schools throughout the North and East Bay closed during the fires, either because of a direct fire threat or due to heavy smoke. (View an interactive map of wildfire damages to schools here.) In Sonoma County more than 71,600 students saw their schools close, with some schools—such as Santa Rosa City Schools—not due to re-open for another week, at least.
Under the McKinney-Vento federal law, districts are required to survey students every fall about their housing conditions and ensure homeless children receive a high-quality education. As California is increasingly ravaged by fires and other natural disasters, the number of homeless children is expected to increase— putting districts in new territory.
Untangling the complex logistics of school enrollment, transportation, free lunches, and clean-up has been a monumental task, said Steven Herrington, the Sonoma County superintendent.
“We have schools that were destroyed. We have schools that are still standing but the neighborhood around them is flattened. We have kids that are in Sacramento, staying with grandparents. We’re trying to figure out transportation in a very spread-out county,” Herrington said.
“We don’t know who’s going to show up when schools re-open,” he said, noting that he’s overseen other districts through floods, earthquakes, and other disasters. “But it’s important we try to create as much stability for the children as possible. After home, schools are a second home-base for kids.”
But there are legal protections for children who find themselves without stable housing. The federal McKinney-Vento law allows homeless students to stay in their original school no matter where the family is living, and enroll in a new school without having to provide proof of residence. It also requires school districts to provide transportation to school, which in a mostly rural county like Sonoma could mean school busses detouring miles to pick up children temporarily living out of town.
School enrollment itself will also be a challenge, Herrington said. Considering the scale of the destruction in Sonoma County, school enrollment is expected to be wildly uneven in some areas. Some schools might see fewer students because so many families lost their homes, while others might see far more students than expected. After the 2015 fires in Lake County, school staff said two years passed before school enrollment stabilized, Herrington said.
To prepare, school staff in Sonoma County are surveying shelters and communicating with parents via email and social media to see where students are likely to return. District staff are also making arrangements for students whose schools were damaged or destroyed, procuring portables at nearby schools, or adopting “a.m. - p.m.” schedules to accommodate ballooning student populations.
Students’ mental-health needs are also a priority, Herrington said. Counselors will be available at all school sites, and teachers and other staff have been trained on how to tend to students feeling traumatized. Most elementary schools will spend the first two days putting academics aside and focusing on art projects and social activities, allowing students to share their stories and reconnect with friends. Schools in Cotati and Petaluma had therapy dogs for the kids to play with. At Mark West Elementary, students will make banners and write notes thanking first responders. Classrooms everywhere will have designated “cozy spaces” where students can sit quietly for a while, if they feel like it.
Returning to school will be a relief for Lesley Van Dordrecht, who’s taught 2nd grade at Mark West Elementary for 24 years. Van Dordrecht and her husband lost their home in the fire and she’s been overwhelmed dealing with insurance paperwork, replacing lost items, and the trauma of losing their home of 29 years.
“There’s been so much support and love and hope. But I’m missing my kids,” she said, noting that her school will have been closed three weeks when it re-opens October 30. “Routine is so important. Getting back to work, staying busy—it’s a gift.”
The early morning of October 8, she and her husband were listening to the 60-mile-per-hour winds knock around their patio furniture when a friend called and said, “You should get out, there’s a big fire,” Van Dordrecht said.
She grabbed her purse, a laptop computer, and a few documents. Her husband, a musician, grabbed his favorite guitar. They left in two cars for a cousin’s house in Forestville. “Five minutes later our house exploded,” she said.
The fire laid waste to everything, she said, except the St. Francis statue in the backyard.
“Some people said we should move the statue because someone might steal it,” she said. “But I kind of like it there.”
Hidden Valley Satellite Elementary, a pre-K-through-2nd-grade school in Santa Rosa, was destroyed entirely. An estimated 50 percent of the children there lost their homes, said Kelly Kane, the co-president of the Parent Faculty Organization.
When school reopens, Hidden Valley Satellite’s students will go to the main Hidden Valley campus a mile away. By juggling classroom space, school staff hope to keep the Satellite children in their same class groups with the same teachers, if possible.
“A lot of these kids have lost their homes and their school. It’s already so difficult,” Kane said.
Kane, her husband, two kids, and two dogs evacuated their home at 1 a.m., October 9 when a neighbor banged on their door. Kane was awake anyway, listening to “wind like I’ve never heard before.” A few minutes later a sheriff’s deputy also banged on their door ordering them to evacuate.
Kane went to wake up her kids, ages 6 and 8. Her son started crying. “I told him, ‘Just pack up a few things, buddy, it’ll be OK,’” Kane said. “Then I started to panic.”
Her husband went next door to wake an 85-year-old neighbor who’s deaf. The door was locked so he broke a window to get inside and wake her. She made it out safely, and Kane and her husband met later at a nearby veteran’s center.
“You could see the fires burning down the hill and then there was this glow. The kids thought that meant the fire was out. I thought, no—that glow is from the valley. The fire’s moved into the valley, where we live,” she said. “It was terrifying.”
The Kanes’ home was spared as the winds shifted and firefighters moved in. But homes just a block away were destroyed, and the school community has been devastated, she said. Some families are staying in hotels, others are with friends or family far away, and with school closed parents are struggling with day-care for their kids while returning to work.
Local churches and camps have opened to provide free child-care during the day, and families have formed informal childcare collectives while parents work, she said. A few teachers have emailed reading and math assignments for students to keep up academically after missing so much school. Kane’s kids are staying with family in Redding.
“The kids can’t wait to get back to school because they’ll get to see their friends, get back to a routine. Basically, be kids again,” said Kane. “That’s something they all desperately need.”
Sanders and her family also evacuated their home the early morning of October 9. “It was pretty clear we had to go when a wall of flames” barreled through the neighborhood, she said.
Rushed and panicking, she wasn’t sure what to pack. So she grabbed a school uniform and some odds and ends. “I packed like a child who’s going away for the first time. A lemon? A toy? At that hour your brain isn’t working quite right. Part of me thought we’d be home in a few hours.”
They evacuated to a nearby parking lot, then another parking lot, then to an acquaintance’s house, and are now at another friend’s house. She learned her family’s house of 12 years was destroyed by looking at aerial photos the next day.
“It’s rubble. You’ve seen the pictures—the whole place is rubble,” she said. “It’s been hard, but it ebbs and flows. The community has been wonderful, and we’re all keeping busy. There’s a sense of resiliency. … Life goes on.”