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Surviving Paradise: The Long Road to Rebuilding Schools

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PARADISE -- The clear morning sky above Paradise quickly turned dark gray on the morning of November 8.

"It got dark. It got really dark," Paradise Elementary School teacher Katy Schrum said. "They called all the students in, and I remember one little girl saying, 'Look, Mrs. Schrum, look how pretty,' and it was a stick with leaves on it, and it was dark brown."

It was a sign to Schrum that a wildfire was just over the horizon.

"She had no idea it was a piece of a burned tree flying through the air," she said.

As the Camp Fire began to devour the town around the school, Schrum and a few staff members stayed behind.

"We were told to get on the phone and call of the parents to come pick their children up," Schrum said. "The only problem is we could reach some parents, and others we couldn't reach."

Schrum says that's when teachers and staff decided to take matters into their own hands to get students to safety.

"I think it was about 10:26 when teachers started to put children into cars, buses to drive down," she told FOX40.

Paradise Unified School District Superintendent Michelle John was out of town when the fire broke out.

"I texted the fire chief, David Hawks, at about 7:30 and said, 'Hey, what's going on? I'm in San Diego. Do I need to call schools?'" John said. "And he gave me a one-word answer -- 'Now.'"

Every student and staff member was able to evacuate safely.  No one was hurt but the damage the Camp Fire left behind was something no one, not even John, could have ever imagined.

The Camp Fire would soon become the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history.

"We lost four schools entirely -- Paradise Elementary, our oldest school - 82-year-old school," John said. "I was the principal of it many years ago."

Altogether, only one school in the district was left untouched – Cedarwood Elementary. The rest of the schools were either destroyed or suffered serious damage.

Ten teachers and more than two dozen staff members - including bus drivers, janitors, aids and food service workers -  have since resigned from the district, and nearly half of the students have either moved to a new city or out of state.

"We have about 52 percent of our students, which hurts tremendously, but I've talked to other superintendents and town officials who have gone through anything and they said expect 30 percent," John said.

Now, the students who remain attend schools set up at temporary locations in Durham, Chico and Oroville.

"It's a huge sacrifice," parent Debbie Muniz said.

Muniz, who has four children attending Paradise schools, now spends hours driving them back and forth to the temporary schools.

"The school used to be five minutes from us, each one, but now we're looking at an hour in the car on the way to and on the way from," Muniz said.

It's one of the reasons Muniz says she is considering leaving Paradise.

"Nothing back home is normal right now and it's been quite an adjustment on all of us," she told FOX40.

While there’s still a long road ahead for everyone, staff at the Paradise School District are working diligently toward rebuilding the schools that were lost, all inside a small, makeshift office in Chico.

John said reopening schools could take months or even years.

Still, dedicated teachers like Schrum work toward rebuilding their community and continuing their students' education.

"You don't even think about it and I think that's just apart of being a teacher," Schrum said. "Your kids come first."

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