School ties

Photo courtesy of Amber Airth

Paul Airth enrolled his 6-year-old daughter, Hope, at Woodson Elementary School in Corning after they lost their home in Paradise.

Hope Airth’s last day at Paradise Elementary lasted about 30 minutes before the Camp Fire forced the evacuation of the entire town, later reducing her school to ash and rubble.

Her father, Paul, recalled knowing something was wrong that morning when a “big ol’ chunk of ash” landed on him as he fastened Hope’s car seat. He dropped her off at school and essentially had to turn around and pick her up: Class was canceled.

After quickly returning home, Airth noticed the sky was an unnatural red and black. He grabbed their pets and the family’s personal documents, while Hope, who had just turned 6 the day before, packed the essentials for what Dad told her was a two-day trip: her stuffed monkey, a toy and scrub pants—the bottoms of her latest Halloween costume.

“By the time I got my kid and my animals in the car, I don’t know how you explain it,” said Airth in a Louisiana drawl. “It was like a tropical storm with fire. It was flying everywhere all over us.”

Hope and Airth ended up in a hotel room in Corning (there weren’t any available in Chico), with his wife, Amber, an Enloe Medical Center nurse, joining them later that day.

Airth, a stay-at-home dad, said he realized that it wasn’t doing his little girl any good to see him try to deal with the aftermath of the family losing their home.

“She needs to go play and meet people and talk and learn, instead of just watching people going, ‘What are we supposed to do now?’” he said.

He quickly enrolled her in Woodson Elementary School in Corning, and less than a week after the fire, Hope was back in class.

As of press time, the Butte County Office of Education planned to reopen all county schools for students Dec. 3. That includes schools from the Ridge—Paradise Unified School District (PUSD) trustees are working hard to get their students back into classrooms with their teachers at separate locations in the county.

Michael Greer, president-elect of the PUSD board of trustees and a special education teacher in Sutter County, has lived in Paradise for 30 years. Since his home burned down, he has been staying in Sacramento, but that hasn’t deterred him from attending emergency meetings locally and visiting Paradise students at evacuation centers.

“The first thing they asked is, ‘When can I be with my teacher? I miss my teacher,’” he told a room of trustees from multiple districts at a recent meeting.

Greer said his board has come to a clear consensus: “We want our students with our teachers in our schools. That’s what we’re going to try to do … get our kids with our teachers and with their friends.”

In the short term, school for PUSD is going to look like a bunch of little satellite classrooms, Superintendent Michelle John told the CN&R. Most local campuses have offered PUSD some space or a classroom here and there. BCOE has a working group tasked with figuring out how to rent portables or other facilities and find land.

“We’ll just bus kids all over the county if that’s what we need to do,” John said.

When the semester ends in December, she added, the district will kick into high gear to figure out an interim plan, with the long-term goal to rebuild in Paradise.

It’s hard for the Airths to plan on returning Hope to PUSD.

“We’d like to go back to Paradise, but what are we going to go back to?” her father said.

Right now, the family is living in an RV in a park for the next month. They aren’t sure what comes next, and are “taking things as they come.”

“We’re going to wait to see how everything goes,” Airth added. “Getting Hope into school was like, mission accomplished.”

Meagan Meloy already was working with her BCOE team to assist the 1,500 homeless students across the county before the Camp Fire displaced at least 4,000 students on the Ridge. They now are all considered homeless under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act.

Her first thought: “How do we even begin?”

As director of School Ties & Prevention Services, Meloy coordinates a continuum of services that include helping students get into school.

The county has placed an enrollment coordinator at every school—charter and non-charter—and six School Ties case managers have been busy coordinating among parents, schools and districts, Meloy told the CN&R. BCOE asks that the families of students displaced by the Camp Fire contact Butte 211 (see infobox) to get connected to a case manager to help them decide the best step forward when it comes to enrollment. Case managers are also there to help families sign up for programs and get free school supplies.

Any student displaced by the fire can return to PUSD or choose to enroll in a charter or the neighborhood school associated with their current location.

“We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for families … to get their kids back in school,” Meloy said.

BCOE has set up a booth at the Local Assistance Center at the Chico Mall in the former Sears building alongside dozens of local, state and federal agencies, to offer school information, free supplies and disaster assistance for thousands of displaced families.

On a recent afternoon, a colorful array of backpacks decorated with hearts and stars, affectionate words and phrases in glittery script awaited children.

These particular donations were put together by students in Shasta and Sonoma counties. Inside are much-needed school supplies for young evacuees of the Camp Fire, including pencils, paper, markers and binders.

But, there’s more: Along with the supplies, there’s a teddy bear and a very special note, with hand-written messages in pencil. The generous students to the west and to the north of Butte County can relate to what Ridge children are going through; they also survived catastrophic wildfires, the Tubbs Fire and the Carr Fire, respectively.

“I’m sorry that this disaster keeps destroying our lives,” one student writes. “I hope you will find somewhere to stay.” They leave two hearts for good measure.

“Oh my gosh, it’s already full!” a young girl said while zipping open her backpack, her straight brown hair falling forward as she peered inside. An adult companion replied warmly, “That’s a good start.”