Education

Wine country wildfires disrupt school for a quarter of a million students

Burned out cars sit next to a building on fire in a fire ravaged neighborhood on October 9, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California.
Burned out cars sit next to a building on fire in a fire ravaged neighborhood on October 9, 2017 in Santa Rosa, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The wildfires in Northern California cut across a wide swath of the state — including dozens of school districts, hundreds of schools and hundreds of thousands of students. At one point, classes were cancelled for 260,000 students in 600 schools.

And while schools are slowly coming back on line, there remain many schools that may not resume classes for days or even weeks.

It's the latest in a series of crises around the country — including hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico — that have left millions of children, teachers and parents scrambling both to resume teaching and learning and to confront the emotion and trauma disasters like these can leave in the minds of children.

In California, the fires have created a unique set of challenges for schools. In addition to the disruption and trauma, there is the potential health risks of smoke and air quality and damage to school structures. Before children can return, many schools face a costly and lengthy process of "remediation" to ensure that the buildings are safe and the air is clean.

Sonoma County was hit particularly hard. There, flames leveled almost 7,000 structures – mostly homes. In the county seat, Santa Rosa, one school and one educational farm site were completely destroyed.

About a dozen other schools were in the burn zone and suffered major damage. Steve Herrington, the Sonoma County superintendent, said about 180 schools were closed between Oct. 9 and Oct. 13. Most have since reopened.

About 400 students and 200 staff members have reported losing their homes, he added. The number is almost certainly higher, he explained, because the full extent of the damage won't be known until all schools are up and running.

As the school year resumes, "there will be a real need to address the trauma and long-term displacement that so many of our students, their families and their teachers have experienced," Herrington said.

Around the affected region, schools and communities are working to ensure that students have the things they need to come back to school – clothing, backpacks, school supplies, hygiene kits, bicycles and, crucially, access to trauma-informed care and counseling.

Even where the fires were suppressed relatively quickly, fears about their lingering effects remain. In Lake County, 2,207 acres burned. And while the fires are mostly contained and evacuation orders have been lifted, educators are working to help students with the healing process.

Two school districts in the county were shut down last week, but most are now reopened without major structural damage.

"One of our main concerns is the poor air quality," said Jill Ruzicka, communications director at the Lake County Office of Education. And that makes sense, considering that the smoke from the wildfires is equivalent to the pollution created by all of the state's cars in a year.

In Mendocino County, just north of Sonoma, there was no direct fire damage in any school and every school has reopened. But there's still a lot of work to be done, says Assistant Superintendent Becky Jeffries.

Almost 100 students lost their homes and several staff members did, too. "This is a disaster that will impact our county for more than two weeks," she said. "Rebuilding will take years."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.