Eagle Point launches distance learning while wildfire smoke still lingers in the air
Angelina Hernandez and her children (from left) Victor Herrera, Nicolas Hernandez, Jasmin Virgen and Kimberly Herrera spent Monday morning in front of an Eagle Point school so the children could have Wi-Fi. School staff saw them outside and brought them a table and school materials. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Some southern Oregon families returned to classes Monday with the trauma of wildfire hanging as heavy as the smoke in the air.
The new normal, combined with pandemic-related complications, is anything but. To access Wi-Fi, Angelina Hernandez sat with her children under Hillside Elementary’s covered front walkway. The family is on the waiting list for a hot spot.
Hernandez’s daughters, high school junior Jasmin Virgen and eighth grader Kimberly Herrera, worked on tablets. Sixth grader Victor Herrera used his mother’s phone to meet with his teacher on Facetime.
The Eagle Point School District started classes a week late, delayed by the Jackson County fires. Staff and students contended with the unfamiliar twin challenges of distance learning and devastation by fire.
At least 10 students and four staff members lost homes in the district north of Medford. Nearly 200 students were evacuated. At least one family started school Monday from Washington.
Last week, the district managed to contact more than 90% of its families scattered by the evacuation to find out what they needed to start school, Superintendent Andy Kovach said. Just having staff in the buildings was a challenge, as some were still either under evacuation orders or cut off by areas closed by the fires.
“We really had to earn just getting to this point,” he said. “Once you get over the initial shock, time to do what we do.”
Hillside fifth grade teacher Sara Davis said her students didn’t discuss the fires Monday. They were more interested in each other’s pets and favorite toys. They wanted to see pictures of Davis’ new baby and the classroom they hope to be in one day. Solving connectivity issues was the day’s pressing crisis.
The fires displaced a few of Davis’ students, but all were present Monday.
“That made my heart happy to see them,” she said.
As noon drew near, cars with kids pulled up to Hillside Elementary to pick up meals. A trio of brothers waited on a bench, having walked from their home.
School staff handed out two sacks, a white sack with a hot pretzel and cheese and a brown sack with fruits and vegetables and breakfast for tomorrow. The district is also delivering more than 300 meals by bus.
Shady Cove, to the north of Eagle Point, was on the front lines of the South Obenchain fire.
Denese Clarke, an instructional assistant for Eagle Point’s Shady Cove Schools, evacuated Sept. 8 and didn’t return to her home until Friday. She missed only one day of work, though, and said working helped her keep her mind off being evacuated.
For Shady Cove second grade teacher Allison Guaderrama, this was her first day of school as a teacher. She had not studied how to hold distance learning classes during a pandemic after a wildfire, but she said she felt the morning still went well.
She said her morning class was plagued by more technology problems than she would have liked and she is still figuring out which ones might be her fault.
Guaderrama said she was “laser focused” this first day on doing the typical stuff to make her students comfortable, but she expects to be doing a lot of social and emotional learning related to the fires.
Shady Cove eighth grade teacher Crystal Wade said the fires were a major conversation topic in her virtual morning class. Students compared who was evacuated the longest, with a four-way tie of a week.
Wade evacuated for three days. Work was difficult, with the smoky air making it hard to think.
Her approach to teaching has changed a little, with more emphasis on making sure her students are in a safe place, mentally and emotionally, to learn.
After the group meeting, she met with struggling students one on one in Zoom to look at their screens and walk them through the technology.
“No freaking out,” she gently tells a student, although she admits later she is trying not to freak out herself.
Wade espouses the “taco philosophy” to her students.
“Just like tacos, there are going to be times when we fall apart,” she said. “But we will scoop up all the pieces, and they will still be delicious.”
White City to the south of Eagle Point was less directly threatened by the fires, but roughly 350 students fleeing the fires in Phoenix and Talent ended up in White City. Many Eagle Point School
District families are hosting other families, making it difficult for students to access the internet and find a quiet place to work.
White Mountain Middle School Principal Karina Rizo said the fires have been traumatic even if students weren’t evacuated.
White Mountain staff debriefed Monday in the library after school, socially distanced and wearing masks.
“We saw kids!” was the first thing a teacher shouted.
Teachers praised the way students and parents were responding to the technology troubles. Rizo also lauded her staff.
“Nobody was crying or screaming,” she said.
Rizo said the first week of school would mostly be focused on social and emotional support, lessons in caring, and building relationships. Despite the distance learning and the fire recovery, the school’s basic mission hasn’t changed.
“We’re going to do what we do and then add another layer,” Rizo said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
- OSBA has created a Wildfire Resources page with links to places to donate to fire victims around the state.