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Wildfire

Fire-Affected School Districts Are Focused On Safety Rather Than Classes After Wildfires

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Ken Silverman
A scene of devastation on Talent Ave., the main street in Talent, Ore., on Wednesday morning, Sept. 9, 2020.

School district leaders and staff across Oregon are trying to begin the school year while many of their students and their families are coping with the destructive fallout of wildfires.

Coronavirus had already complicated the way school was set to look and function this fall for Oregon students, parents and teachers. Coupled with the pandemic, the danger of wildfire driving thousands of Oregonians from their homes has caused multiple K-12 school districts to delay the start of classes.

Brent Barry, Superintendent of the Phoenix-Talent School District in southern Oregon, said more than half of the district’s families had been displaced or lost their homes due to the Almeda Drive Fire that ripped through the area Tuesday.

“At this point, we are connecting with every one of our families to find out the immediate and urgent needs of students and family members to make sure everyone is safe, that they have their basic needs met as far as shelter and food and things that they need just to feel comfortable just moving on from this which will take months and years really,” Barry said.

Barry said all of the district’s school structures are “still standing and in good shape,” which he said will be a “pillar of hope moving forward for our students and our families.”

But because so many teachers and students are displaced, and because parts of Phoenix and Talent are still under Level 3 evacuation orders, the district decided to delay the start of the school year until at least the week of Sept. 21.

“We have people who’ve lost everything, not only our families but staff members and other community members and businesses,” Barry said. “So we are just really focused on the basic needs now and we will continue with comprehensive distance learning when we have access to power, access to resources to be able to do that in the most effective way.”

Barry said the district is currently using Orchard Hills Elementary as its command center, as it’s the only school they’ve been able to access that has power and internet. He said the school district has been using that school building for meal distribution, in addition to leaning on other local districts to help stage and provide meals to families.

The district also has a donation fund going in which people can contribute cash and gift card donations to.

Lisa Robin teaches social studies and leadership at Phoenix High School.

“I was able to sneak into town early in the morning after the fire to check on my property to see if it was still standing,” Robin said. “And, unfortunately, it was one of the hundreds and hundreds that were lost.”

She continued: “There’s just nothing left. Everything that I’ve seen is completely to the ground, and it’s just piles of ash. There’s no structure of any kind left, so it’s not like there’s going to be much to salvage for most families.”

Robin said she was already thinking about how difficult it was going to be to teach students using distance learning, due to the coronavirus.

“We had a plan, and we were ready to implement that plan, but we were already nervous about how that was going to go because it’s new to everybody,” Robin said. “But this obviously is just so much more problems on top of the problems we already had.”

Robin says she has confidence in the district finding solutions, but with families dispersed not only in the area but throughout the state, she fears enrollment will be significantly affected.

In preparation for distance learning, the district had also distributed laptops to students and set up internet hotspots throughout the area.

“I’m sure a lot of that technology was lost in the fire,” Robin said.

Robin said the district will address those losses eventually, but right now its primary goal is to ensure students and their families are safe and having their needs met.

“I think reading, writing and arithmetic are going to be secondary for a while because we love our students and want to make sure that they’re safe and cared for first and foremost,” Robin said.

About 300 miles north of the Phoenix-Talent School District, the Santiam Canyon district in Marion County is facing a similar situation.

“This is strange for a Superintendent of schools to say something like this — School is not the top priority right now,” Todd Miller, Superintendent of the Santiam Canyon School District said. “Basic needs and safety are right now, are what all the families need to be focusing on.”

Miller estimates that around 10% of the district’s staff have lost their homes in the Santiam Canyon Fire. The district doesn’t have any estimate for families.

“We’re still in a spot where we’re still in the emergency,” Miller said. “As much as we are wanting to move onto the next step of support — which we are beginning — and rebuilding, we’re still trying to get through the emergency portion of it.”

Miller said the center of Mill City, where the district’s schools are located, did not receive much fire damage. In other nearby cities like Gates, Detroit and Idanha, he said, the damage was more extensive.

Because the vast majority of Marion County was issued Level 3 evacuation orders due to the fires, and because people may not have access to phones or the internet, it’s been difficult to reach families, Miller said.

Also, because so much of the area is still under that mandatory evacuation order, the district has not started any support programs yet, such as distributing meals.

“Part of our issue is all of our facilities, supplies, equipment are all stuck in an area that we can’t get to,” he said.

As for when classes will start, the timeline is still up in the air, Miller said.

“We would have been starting school already, but we had already canceled this week,” he said. “We have also canceled next week, and when we get into next week, then we’ll be able to assess the situation again, and if we’re going to have to extend it longer.”

Miller said starting school will depend on when evacuation orders are lifted and families are better able to assess their situations, as well as their readiness to begin distance learning.

“It’s going to have to kind of be a week-by-week basis for prepping for when school starts,” he said.

Miller said there are efforts beginning to take donations for emergency supplies such as the Santiam Canyon Wildfire Relief Fund, coordinated by the local hospital.

“The main area of support is going to happen when residents come back into the area,” Miller said, “when they return to no home or they return to a home, yet they need water or they need power.”

He said he acknowledges that school is often something that offers stability for children, especially in the already challenging landscape of the coronavirus pandemic, and he said the district is looking into increasing mental health services that it was already working on.

Both Robin and Barry in Southern Oregon echo that their primary focus is the community’s safety and well-being.

“I have complete confidence that everything that can be done is being done,” Robin said. “The message is that we will rise from this — Kind of ironic that a Phoenix is a bird that rises from the ashes. So, that’s kind of been a mantra for us, that we will rise. We will get through this.”

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting