The latest school hurdle: Distance learning without power in Sonoma County

Deanna Olivares had her hands full Tuesday.

Stuck without power in her Rincon Valley home, she set up shop to help her sixth, seventh and 10th-grade children navigate distance learning in the proverbial dark — without computers, without a steady internet connection, and as the smoky skies shrouded her home in a mustard yellow haze, without much decent natural light.

And then there were more. Family members called in to work dropped off two elementary schoolers and two toddlers at her house for the day.

But Olivares runs a house where people aren’t afraid to ask for help and she’s not afraid to give it. On Tuesday, without power and surrounded by kids with varying degrees of academic needs, she just made do.

“It wasn’t that bad because I kind of told everyone the rules and we just rolled with the punches,” she said. “But then again, they probably didn’t do what they were supposed to do with school work. We were just working on staying alive. It was so batshit crazy, you just have to laugh.”

When a neighbor walked a lighter across the street to help Olivares start her stove, a second neighbor noticed and called out an offer for a stack of board games. Suddenly Olivares was flush with options: Her second-grade niece was on a spelling scavenger hunt, her sixth-grader was assigned a math game and suddenly Jenga was an option for her sophomore.

It didn’t necessarily look like school, but Olivares didn’t seem to mind.

“Everyone is doing what they can,” she said. “The hardest part is the junior high and high school kids, just trying to get through the day without unnecessary stress that adds to stress on children is really hard.”

And it has been hard. Students in Sonoma County have been out of the classroom since mid-March when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools.

Distance learning is barely underway for the 2020-21 school year and the area has already been rocked by wildfires, more school day cancellations and now power shutoffs.

Distance learning with no power? What does that even look like? For many it looked like a scramble to find a working printer Monday night to print out worksheets and assignment charts before everything went dark.

“I just keep going back to the fact that, yeah, it’s been a lot since March. It’s just been a lot,” Maria Carrillo High School principal Katie Barr said.

For Barr, the challenges have driven home the importance of connection — teachers with students, students with each other and teachers with colleagues.

“In these times that are so incredibly challenging, that human instinct of connection is taking full force,” she said.

Power outages put further stresses on those connections.

Carrillo, along with Rincon Valley Middle School and Santa Rosa Accelerated Charter School, were scheduled to be totally offline Tuesday and Wednesday because of the planned PG&E power shutoffs.

Campuses in the Rincon Valley Union School District were affected by the outages, too, including Austin Creek, Sequoia, Whited, Binkley, Madrone and Rincon Valley Charter elementary and middle schools, as well as their after-care programs. In all, the shutoffs affected approximate 4,800 students and their families spread across wide swaths of eastern Santa Rosa. Administrators said online classes at these schools would be canceled again on Wednesday, and they hoped to resume their regular schedules on Thursday.

But issues were not confined to those schools. Because thousands of students don’t attend their neighborhood schools, power outages in some areas of town can affect schools and students miles away.

Slater Middle School math teacher Kelly McMahon started getting alerts over the weekend that her power might be shut off this week. While the Sonoma Avenue campus didn’t lose power, McMahon knew the outages might affect some of her students; she just didn’t know how many. So she started to plan for an old-fashioned approach to distance learning: Worksheets and text books. And a large dose of flexibility.

“I emailed students, put it up on Google Classroom. I sent (assignments) out (Monday) so that they knew the situation and they knew not to worry,” she said.

And still, students and parents worried that they had missed class or were going to be late on assignments.

“Some students obviously didn’t read what I sent them because they are emailing me freaking out,“ she said. ”And some kids were waiting for me on Zoom, they are in the waiting room on Zoom, ’Why aren’t you letting me in?’“

A parent emailed McMahon Tuesday morning, worried about their internet connection and her child’s ability to attend class and turn in assignments.

“She said, ’Well we can try to go somewhere, a Starbucks or her sister’s house, but her internet isn’t that good,’” McMahon said. “I’m like ’Wait a minute, don’t do any of that. I don’t want you to have to make full accommodations. It’s already stressful enough.”

McMahon, trying to alleviate others’ stress, was in a pinch of her own Tuesday. Without power, her internet connection went haywire, too. Contacted Tuesday, she was mid-drive in search of a safe, secure location to connect to Wi-Fi so she could respond to all of her students and parents.

“Teachers, we understand. Some of us are in the same boat,” she said.

Maria Carrillo senior Sophia Nguyen was just thankful the school doled out textbooks last week.

“Before we would have lectures and we would watch and take notes,” she said. “Now it’s like ’Read this out of the textbook and do these problems.’ It’s a really good thing that just last week we had textbook pickup. If we didn’t, we’d have a problem.”

And still, Nguyen feels a little shortchanged. Again.

“It kind of sucks because even with distance learning it felt like we were only getting a portion of what we were supposed to be getting,” she said.

And many are getting used to the unusual.

“I feel like in Sonoma County this stuff has just become normalized, ’Oh OK, there is another power outage, another fire,” Maria Carrillo senior Michael Hayden said.

So much so that his parents mentioned the latest two-day outage with little fanfare Monday night, he said.

“I had almost no warning. I think it was maybe 8 or 9 and my parents were like, ’There is going to be another power outage,’ and I was like, ’Wait,’ wait, wait,’” he said.

The announcement set off a flurry of late night preparations for largely offline lessons Tuesday. Primed for handling the unknown since the Tubbs fire struck in his freshman year, today’s generation of students are getting more nimble, Hayden said.

“When we moved online at the end of last quarter I feel like that was almost our trial period, so we could get the hang of online school,” he said. “The end of last year was helping us to be prepared for all the craziness.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or On Twitter @benefield.

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