(TNS) — It’s Cardinal Newman High School’s first week back since a huge fire ravaged half of its campus in October, and in the back room of a Catholic church in Rohnert Park, Bernadette Calhoun fiddles with a printer while explaining advanced placement calculus to a group of students.
She has just 10 minutes to get to her next class, and she’s already late: It’s located 20 minutes away in another parish. But the students here still have questions for her, and the printer still needs to get fixed. So she stays, knowing how much mundane things like a completed math equation or a working printer can mean to kids still dealing with the trauma of the fires.
Patience, she thinks to herself. This is all just temporary: Soon, she’s been told, all four Catholic parish churches serving as makeshift classrooms will have simple things like working Wi-Fi and reliable printers. Then teachers can set up video chats among the facilities instead of sitting in traffic between classes, and be able to give more energy and attention to students who desperately need it.
But by December, much is still the same. Here Calhoun, again with a few minutes before her next class begins, finds herself again fiddling with a printer as a student stands behind her with a pencil, paper and dozens of questions.
Almost three months after the Tubbs Fire tore through Cardinal Newman’s main office building, library and several classrooms, the private school is still dealing with the nagging details involved in trying to get back to normal.
When classes resumed Oct. 24, students were split up by grade level and sent to resume classes in parishes throughout the area, in Windsor, West Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park and Cotati. To try to keep the students on a regular schedule, the teachers have been rotating among the church sites to teach classes. With traffic and stoplights in between, a trip from one parish to another can take up to 20 minutes.
“It’s like a dance routine,” Calhoun said recently as she swung her laptop bag over her shoulder and scooped up a stack of test papers. “A very sophisticated dance routine.”
As Calhoun left her morning class, Marty Argenti walked into the back room of St. Elizabeth’s, where students sat at a plastic folding table. This was the science teacher’s second stop of the day: He started in Windsor, and after this stop in Rohnert Park, he’ll make another stop in Windsor and then Cotati.
“It’s functioning,” Argenti said. “But the teachers and the students are exhausted.”
Cardinal Newman’s gutted and smoldering main entrance became one of the most prominent images from the Tubbs Fire, the most destructive blaze in California’s history. Immediately after the fires, donations poured in to the school. Among them are several videoconferencing tools from San Jose computing giant Cisco Systems.
The donation was seen as a saving grace for the school. Being able to teach over video, school officials said, would ease the burden on teachers. But because of weak Internet connections at the temporary classroom sites, the school was never able to get the conferencing system up and running.
“It wasn’t for a lack of trying,” Calhoun said, adding that Cisco repeatedly worked with the school to try to get the technology to work. “The parishes just never expected to have to support business-level technology.”
The lack of reliable Wi-Fi might seem like a relatively trivial roadblock for the school, but it has hindered efforts to resume some basic activities. Seniors filling out college applications have had to use personal hotspots to avoid losing work when a church’s Wi-Fi signal suddenly goes down. For teachers, videos and online tutorials, now a standard part of lesson plans, are not an option.
Students who lost their homes, such as 17-year-old Rachael McGregor, are just happy to be back in school. Still, she said, it is tough to move on when the student body is separated and slow Internet connections hinder everyday tasks such as completing online homework assignments.
“At first I was like, ‘This sucks,’ but then I realized that there’s nothing we can do about it,” McGregor said. “It’s just nice to be with my classmates, and you can’t really be mad about a situation like this.”
Cardinal Newman plans to resume classes on campus next month after it sets up about 20 portable classrooms equipped with an electrical system, fire alarms and wireless access. In the meantime, teachers have had to toe a careful line between being sensitive and getting the students back on track, Calhoun said. Students have been allowed a more relaxed dress code, later start times and more leeway on assignments. They also have tried to keep up normal traditions, like pep rallies, football games and dressing up for Halloween and Christmas.
But the losses they suffered are still settling in for many students.
Shortly after the fire, senior Lauren Clements stood in front of her burned-down school with her father. Behind her was a flattened neighborhood, where homes were reduced to piles of ash. A smell of smoke lingered in the air.
“I often come here on my way back from Cotati,” she said, her eyes glued to the devastated grounds as she spoke. “I’m still trying to process all of it.”
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