By Socorro Shiels, Superintendent of the Sonoma Valley Unified School District
This piece seemed easy in concept a month ago. I knew somehow it would be about gratitude and family; the season really calls for that kind of reflection. What I didn’t predict, which always seems to be the case with emergencies, is that for over a week we would be plagued by terribly poor air quality from someone else’s fire. Somewhere over 100 miles away, I knew a community was in pain. I have only an inkling of their loss and in some ways the magnitude of the Paradise fire makes ours seem small, something I didn’t believe possible. I thought the magnitude of our losses was unspeakable only to learn that it can be even greater. And all that reflection and humility came before the smoke.
During the smoke, as I realized it was settling in and not passing through, I felt pangs of fear as I was driving. Fear of the grey apocalyptic sky. Fear of the ash in the air. Fear of 100 miles not being far enough away. Then, the fear and responsibility of keeping our students safe.
As I rushed to learn more and understand what was happening to our community, I also thought about the 4,000-plus students we care for each day. I read at the end of it all, over a million students in the Bay Area lost school time. For us, as a basic aid district (meaning our money to run the district comes from property taxes and not from student attendance and the state), attendance is not a driving force to balance the budget. Surely, we value attendance because as educators we believe every moment counts in the learning equation. The greater issue though is always safety and as we learned more we balanced it all, air quality at home, air quality in our buildings, then took an educated guess as to the best way to keep all children in our community as safe.
I appreciate the feedback from many parents who disagreed with our decision. To be sure, in cases like this one we are clear we won’t please everyone and we work from a place of safety and compassion for students, staff and families. We worked hard to make our thinking visible — to share the information we had with the community so families could be empowered to make the decisions that worked for them. For that I am grateful.
I am also grateful for the staff I am lucky enough to work with every day, who care for others as if they are family and who work hard to provide meaningful opportunities to learn and grow. I am grateful for the community who understood that not all families have the same options, that for some going to work was a necessity and that for others the schools provided safe air spaces. I am grateful for my own family who understood what felt like post-traumatic stress and helped me catch my breath, metaphorically and literally. I was grateful for the rains that contained the fire, dissipated the smoke and assured me that new fires would be harder to start any time soon.
It’s easier now to look back at the air quality issue as an opportunity to come together as a community to learn and grow with one another for the sake of all. I am grateful for that experience to see our Valley rise in the face of adversity.