Chil­dren re­turn to school

Life creeps closer to nor­mal af­ter deadly wild­fire

Global Times US Edition - - USSOCIETY -

Eight-year-old Bella Maloney woke up next to her lit­tle brother in a queen­size bed at a Best Western ho­tel and for break­fast ate a bagel and cream cheese that her mother brought up from the lobby.

And then she was off to school for the first time in nearly a month.

For Bella, brother Vance and thou­sands of other young­sters in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia who lost their homes or their class­rooms in last month’s deadly wild­fire, life crept a lit­tle closer to nor­mal on Mon­day when school fi­nally re­sumed in most of Butte County.

“They’re ready to get back,” Bella’s mother, Er­ica Hail, said of her chil­dren. “I think they’re sick of Mom and Dad.” At school, “they get to have time alone in their own space and their own grade and they get to just be by them­selves.”

Schools in the county had been closed since Novem­ber 8, when the blaze swept through the town of Par­adise and sur­round­ing ar­eas, de­stroy­ing nearly 14,000 homes and killing at least 85 peo­ple in the na­tion’s dead­li­est wild­fire in a cen­tury. Eleven peo­ple re­main un­ac­counted for, down from a stag­ger­ing high of 1,300 a few weeks ago.

About 31,000 stu­dents in all have been away from school since the dis­as­ter. On Mon­day, nearly all of them went back, though some of them at­tended class in other build­ings be­cause their schools were dam­aged or de­stroyed, or in­ac­ces­si­ble in­side evac­u­a­tion zones.

Bella was shy and not very talk- ative but agreed she was ex­cited to be go­ing back. She wanted to see her friends.

The small, tidy ho­tel room with two queen beds has been home to the fam­ily of five for some two weeks. Since they lost nearly ev­ery­thing to the fire, there was lit­tle to clut­ter up the space. The Hails are booked there un­til Fe­bru­ary.

“Bella, what time is it?” Hail asked her daugh­ter, wak­ing her up in their ho­tel room.

“Seven-dot-dot-three-five,” came the 8-year-old’s singsong re­ply. 7:35. It was time to brush her teeth, comb her hair and hit the road for a nearly hour-long drive to school in the fam­ily SUV.

A few min­utes later, at seven-dot­dot-four-seven, they were out of the door.

Some fam­i­lies driven out by the in­ferno have left the state or are stay­ing with friends or rel­a­tives too far away for the chil­dren to go back to school in Butte County.

The Hails – whose five-bed­room, two-bath home in Par­adise was de­stroyed – are stay­ing in Yuba City, a long drive from their new school in Durham.

It was shortly be­fore the 9 am start of the school day when they pulled up to Durham El­e­men­tary School, where Bella is in third grade and Vance is in half-day kin­der­garten.

Across the county, nearly all of the teach­ers are re­turn­ing to pro­vide a fa­mil­iar and com­fort­ing face to the chil­dren.

“It’s im­por­tant that the kids are able to stay to­gether and have some sort of nor­malcy in the crazy dev­as­ta­tion that we’re hav­ing now,” said Jodi Sea­holm, whose daugh­ter Mal­lory is a third-grader.

Mal­lory un­der­went ra­di­a­tion in Oc­to­ber to treat a re­cur­rence of brain cancer and showed no fear, Sea­holm said, but “this sit­u­a­tion with her house burn­ing down has ab­so­lutely dev­as­tated her.”

Coun­selors brought in from around the coun­try were in nearly ev­ery class­room on Mon­day to help chil­dren who were dis­tressed by their es­cape through a burn­ing town and the loss of their homes, Par­adise school Su­per­in­ten­dent Michelle John said at a cel­e­bra­tory news con­fer­ence. Many of the teach­ers lost their homes as well.

“Our kids are trau­ma­tized,” John said. “Their fam­i­lies are trau­ma­tized.”

Most of Par­adise High School sur­vived but is in­ac­ces­si­ble.

The dis­trict doesn’t have space yet for in­ter­me­di­ate and high school stu­dents whose class­rooms were ren­dered un­us­able, so for the 13 days be­fore the hol­i­day break be­gins, they will learn through in­de­pen­dent study. They will have ac­cess to on­line as­sign­ments and a drop-in cen­ter at a mall in Chico where they can get help from teach­ers or see class­mates.

School­work will prob­a­bly be se­condary to deal­ing with trauma and re­con­nect­ing with friends, said Par­adise High Prin­ci­pal Loren Lighthall. AP

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