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In The Wake Of The Wildfires, Some Children Are Suffering From Extreme Stress And Anxiety

Five-year-old Abby Bucolo attends her kindergarten classes online, weeks after the Almeda Fire destroyed her home.
Courtesy of Courtney Bucolo
Five-year-old Abby Bucolo attends her kindergarten classes online, weeks after the Almeda Fire destroyed her home.

Hundreds of students in Talent and Phoenix lost their homes to the Almeda Fire this September, just a week before school was supposed to start. Now some of them are showing signs of extreme stress and anxiety, causing school leaders and parents to consider resuming in-person classes again.

Shortly after the onset of the pandemic, five-year-old Abby Bucolo started having mild panic attacks. She’d complain about stomach aches or she’d throw tantrums. Sometimes she'd hyperventilate. But her mom, Courtney Bucolo, says those episodes were nothing compared to what happened shortly after a wildfire destroyed their home in Talent, when they started living at a bed-and-breakfast in Ashland.

“She was complaining about a stomach ache, but it kept escalating to the point where she was screaming and doubling over, every couple of minutes,” Courtney Bucolo recalls.

That went on for hours. Courtney Bucolo took her daughter to the hospital, where she seemed to go catatonic. She curled into a fetal position, didn’t talk to anyone, and hardly answered nurses’ questions. At one point she started screaming again, and passed out.

But doctors said all of her tests came out clear.

“And then they were like, we think it’s a panic attack,” Courtney Bucolo says.

They went home that night, but Abby Bucolo's panic attack didn't stop.

"The next day was the same," Courtney Bucolo recalls. "She's just screaming, and screaming, and screaming. It was probably the worst experience of my life. Nothing was stopping it."

Since she's so young — just five years old — Abby Bucolo can only take mild medications like Benadryl to calm down. After consulting a few specialists, her parents have since been giving her small doses of medicine, which has helped stave off additional attacks. So has therapy, as well as teaching Abby Bucolo about the meaning of what it is to be anxious, scared, and stressed.

Abby Bucolo, right, eats breakfast with her brother Henry at a bed-and-breakfast their parents are renting after their home was destroyed by the Almeda Fire.
April Ehrlich | JPR News
Abby Bucolo, right, eats breakfast with her brother, two-year-old Henry Bucolo, at a bed-and-breakfast in Ashland. Their parents are temporarily renting the home after their house was destroyed by the Almeda Fire.

Abby Bucolo is one of 700 students in the Talent-Phoenix School District who lost their homes to the Almeda Fire on September 8th. Two weeks later, they had to start their first day of school. Many tuned in from hotels or relatives’ houses. Some are living in tents or in outbuildings without an internet connection, so the district has set up hotspots in different locations around the county.

“Some kids are telling really intense stories, and some kids are like, ‘This part of my house burned down but not that part,’” says Talent Elementary School teacher Pam Ward, who teaches fifth graders. “Or some kids are like, ‘I live where nothing burned down and I feel bad because my house is standing and my friend across the street house isn't.”

During Abby Bucolo's first day of online kindergarten, she was the first to raise her hand to introduce herself to the grid of squares showing her classmates' faces.

“My name is Abby and my house burned down and I like art,” she announced.

While Abby Bucolo loves making friends and speaking up in class, she dreads getting up in the morning to attend school online. She says she's made new friends in kindergarten, but adds, “I don’t know them yet,” because she’s only ever seen them on a computer screen.

Like Abby Bucolo, a lot of students are having a hard time dealing with these sudden changes. Their lives have been upended twice in one year — first with the pandemic, then again with a wildfire that decimated much of their towns.

Talent-Phoenix School District administrators say they want to bring students back to campus this winter to help give them a sense of returning back to normal.

“That lack of stability and the lack of predictability can be really harmful,” says Phoenix Elementary School Principal Shawna Schleif. “And so — if we can mitigate that by bringing kids back to campus to create space for kids to be, and be in relation with one another, and give families a reprieve to take care of all of the things that they need to take care of — we want to be able to do that.”

After the fire, the district surveyed parents for their thoughts about having students return to in-person learning. Schleif says about 80 percent of the participants want their kids to go back to campus.

Abby Bucolo's parents are among them.

“It’s the worst decision to make,” Courtney Bucolo says. “We know the virus is real, and we know it’s a problem and we assume if they go back to in-person learning there’ll be an increase in cases and we’ll probably have to stop seeing my grandparents. It’s a rock and a hard place.”

If students come back to school this year, administrators say they’ll likely implement a hybrid model with some students coming to campus during different parts of the day. Everyone will need to wear face masks.

Still, administrators don’t have an exact return date in mind. They say it’s dependent on coronavirus cases in Jackson County, which lately have been skyrocketing. So the chances that Abby Bucolo could actually meet her new friends in person are becoming slimmer every day.

April Ehrlich is an editor and reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, she was a news host and reporter at Jefferson Public Radio.