No students are to be seen in the on-campus hatchery at Casa Grande High School in Petaluma.
There, United Anglers Program Director Dan Hubacker lectures about the Petaluma watershed and native species of trout and salmon to two 55-inch television screens, which display the face of his students via Zoom.
Though past classes have seen pushback from admin, devastating droughts and year after year of wildfires in the North Bay, none of these are perhaps as comparable—or impactful—as the coronavirus pandemic, which saw its first U.S. cases in January and has forced campus shutdowns of K-12 and colleges nationwide.
United Anglers got its start in the early ’80s, when teacher Tom Furrer and a group of Casa students spearheaded a massive clean-up of Adobe Creek. They removed over 30 truckloads of trash, including large kitchen appliances, car parts and several tires. During the Tubbs fire in October 2017, the on-campus hatchery was designated as an emergency facility for the Warm Springs Fish Hatchery in Geyserville.
Students enrolled in the class learn about the history of United Anglers, the Petaluma watershed, native strains of trout and salmon, and general wildlife. Those who pass the Tech II Exam, which requires a perfect score, are allowed to work with the hatchery’s equipment and are responsible for raising Steelhead trout later in the school year.
In 1993, students managed to raise over $510,000 to build the on-campus hatchery. Since then, the program has hosted an annual fundraiser at the Lucchesi Community Center, as Casa Grande High School offers United Anglers no funding for hatchery maintenance or class materials, which include nets and creek waders.
This year, with large gatherings banned, the plan for the November fundraiser is uncertain. Program director Dan Hubacker is hesitant to make any major decisions at this point, but he says that the program will still need support and funding, regardless of whether a fundraiser is held. Even if in-person classes are permitted in spring, massive modifications will have to be made to the building so that students can be allowed inside.
“We can either sit back and wait for in-person to occur, and then go, we don’t have any funding to cover that, or we can prepare … and we’re ready as soon as we get the go-ahead,” Hubacker says. “Right, wrong or indifferent, we can only go back if these changes are made. We have to keep our distance, we have to wear a mask, those are the things that are expected of us, so how do we get to that?”
In mid-March, amid talk of remote learning and campus shutdowns, Hubacker and his students began strategizing their next steps.
“The way I prepared the students was the idea that one way or another, we’re either coming back to class and running things status quo or, as we gain more information, we’ll make the call as we go,” Hubacker said in an interview.
Initial campus closures extended through the end of April, with an anticipated reopening date of May 1. However, in April, Petaluma City Schools announced that all classes would be conducted online for the remainder of the school year. For Hubacker, this forced the question of how to deal with the existing steelhead trout in the building.
“I didn’t want to cut the fish loose and find out a week later, hey, we’re coming back for in-person teaching and have everybody wonder, why did [you] cut the fish loose? There was that pull from both sides, so I held on to the fish through the end of the [school] year,” Hubacker said.
Hubacker recruited the help of the Department of Fish and Wildlife and UA’s Board of Directors. At the end of the year, the group successfully transported the trout to Warm Springs.
Hubacker says that the switch to remote instruction brought with it more than a few limitations. Holding class via Zoom means students aren’t able to get hands-on instruction, a hallmark of the UA program, and this presents challenges with distributing exams.
“We’re still, as educators, trying to wrap our head around how to assess students in a formalized setting,” Hubacker says. “With an exam, how do you do it? How do you not have a student sitting there with their notes open, a cell phone accessible, the internet accessible? Don’t even get me started with the idea of, how do you meet the accommodations of a student that has additional needs that need to be met? It’s not an equitable model.”
Remote instruction is new territory for Hubacker, who says that “all [the] field components have become part of our Zoom time.”
With the fate of in-person classes in spring semester left hanging in the balance, Hubacker says he will continue to modify the program’s schedule as more information is released.
“In the grand scheme of things, I’ve reached a point where—excuse my language—I’ve been pissed off,” he says. “I’ve vented to the point where it’s like, it’s not changing it. How much can I really complain if I can’t turn around and go, this is what I can do? Right now, this is what we have, what am I gonna do about it? How am I going to make this work to the best of my ability?”
Program alumna Izzy Fabbro, who graduated in 2018, says that the program provided her with a pathway to working with endangered species.
“I think the hatchery is important for showing students how important the environment is even at the local scale,” Fabbro says. “It allows us to get involved in improving our community. It also allows us an opportunity to get to do hands-on work that isn’t always available to everyone.”
The sentiment is echoed by Hubacker, who says that the cultural component of the class may not be able to return for the foreseeable future.
“The norms that you have, the chemistry, stressing, working together—I know it sounds small, but such a big part of this group is a handshake,” Hubacker says. “We spend an entire class period practicing handshakes. What’s going to happen with that? I don’t know.”
Still, even amid all the uncertainty, Hubacker feels confident in the abilities of his students. For now, the organization’s goal is moving forward—regardless of what will come in the next few months.
“I haven’t seen a group so fired up to prove a point than the group we have right now, because they know what they’re up against,” Hubacker says. “They know how easy it is to roll over and accept this, but as I keep telling them, this is stuff that is going to be written in the history books. We’re in times right now where it’s like, if you can get through this, you can get through just about everything.”