September 24 2021 03:30 pm

Back To School: Aside from pandemic, some schools face wildfire threat

Back to School

COLFAX, Calif. (KTXL) — As more schools head back to full-time, full capacity, in-person learning, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the only concern – some are also dealing with the threat of wildfires.

The first day back at Colfax Elementary was pushed back by a week due to the River Fire.

“Those people are living in Elk Grove, San Louis Obispo, they’re living everywhere. So for us to start school immediately was going to provide some difficulty for them,” said John Baggett, the superintendent and principal of the Colfax Elementary School District.

“We have a morning meeting every morning, every classroom with social-emotional learning,” Baggett continued. “For that first 30 minutes of the day is checking in with our kids, and so that was already in the making. But it’s going to be essential that we continue to do that and check in with our kids because our families are in crisis.”

Right next door at Colfax High School, their principal told FOX40 they do still plan to start school Tuesday despite the disaster that, as the principal put it, “just rocked our community.” 

The fire didn’t reach school grounds, and in fact, firefighters used it as a staging point.

As of Sunday, 150 students were displaced by the fire. Eleven staff members can’t get to their homes and two lost everything.

Some schools in neighboring Nevada County were also impacted by the River Fire, but aren’t due to start for another week.

Bear River High School was turned into a shelter and Chicago Park Elementary was doused in pink fire retardant as flames from the River Fire came close. Year-round preschoolers were evacuated on Wednesday.

“There was one student who wasn’t picked up in time, so we put him in the car and left and made arrangements to meet with the parent,” said Chicago Park Elementary Principal Katie Kohler. “They did exactly what they were supposed to do. We’ve had this drill over and over again.”

Kohler said firefighters not only saved the school but cleaned up the retardant afterward. In the rush to evacuate, Kohler said the school’s air conditioning was left on and there may be smoke damage inside the classrooms.

“I was notified that’s not always visible, so we need to check that out to make sure it’s safe for our students to come in,” Kohler said.

They planned to have the Chicago Park classrooms inspected Monday. 

Teacher Robin Johnston wasn’t on campus for the evacuation. She was taking a last vacation day when she watched the fire start from Rollins Lake.

“I was OK when I thought maybe my home burned, but when I heard maybe the school possibly has burned that’s when I cried. That’s when I just thought no because it’s such a pivotal part of this community,” Johnston told FOX40.

Johnston, who has been a teacher for nearly 25 years, said despite COVID-19, she believes her students and fellow educators were in a great position to start this school year.  

Evacuation orders put her behind in setting up her classroom, but she was not worried. She was, however, focused on her third graders’ well-being.

“A lot of times they’ll say, ‘Why do we do fire drills? Why do we have to go outside?’” Johnston said of her young students. “Showing them this is what we do to be prepared, and just making the kids feel comfortable here at school knowing there was a fire just down the road.”

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