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Distance learning even more disorienting when students aren’t in homes
Jordan Ruiz, a Talent Middle School success coach, staffs a Phoenix-Talent student support effort Wednesday at the Jackson County Expo in Central Point. Ruiz volunteered to be part of the district’s evacuee outreach, but he worries about co-workers having to pick up his duties at his school. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
A brother and sister worked Wednesday on computers inside a cavernous industrial building with metal garage doors and exposed insulation. Orange power cords snaked across a rough concrete floor.
The first day of distance learning looks different when your home has burned down.
The Phoenix-Talent School District south of Medford began its school year with online high school classes Wednesday. The Almeda fire destroyed more than 2,300 homes, leaving twisted metal, ash heaps and blackened skeletons of cars while scattering as much as 40% of the district’s students.
Young people and staff are juggling conflicting emotions as they adopt familiar routines amid enormous change.
At least a dozen of the district’s students now live at the Jackson County Expo emergency shelter, about 10 miles north of the charred ruins of neighboring Phoenix and Talent. The district is staffing a building daily on the sprawling grounds, offering Wi-Fi and support.
The siblings, whose father didn’t want them identified, are living in an RV with their family of six and no internet. The brother, a sophomore, said it is a strange way to go to school but he just has to do what needs to be done. He was glad to reconnect with friends.
The sister, a senior, said it is hard to focus on classes, yet a relief from recounting all she has lost.
“You’re not really thinking about it when they are teaching,” she said. “I have to focus my brain on school when it is school time.”
Jordan Ruiz, an eighth grade success coach at Talent Middle School, staffed the expo building Wednesday. He said he is not putting pressure on anyone to try to go to school.
In addition to a quiet, uncrowded place where students can access the internet, Ruiz offers meals, donated supplies, information and a trusted face.
Eighth grader Luis Ortiz stopped by with his mother and little sister. He played soccer for Ruiz and said it helps to see a familiar face.
Ortiz’s family picked up a couple of Chromebooks. Students can take a Chromebook with them or borrow one from the cart at the site.
Ortiz’s family lost their home, and now the five of them are living in an RV at the expo grounds. He is looking forward to the start of middle school on Monday.
The district has been helping with transportation, and Alma Carrión, Ortiz’s mother, said she hopes that schools will be able to send buses for her children if they leave the expo.
At Phoenix High School, burned home lots are visible from the parking lot. Principal Toby Walker says “there’s no playbook” for distance learning during a pandemic after a destructive wildfire.
Some students are too overwhelmed to focus on school, he said, while others are craving that structure.
Walker said the message to parents is simple: “We just want your kids to engage to the best of their ability right now.”
Two hundred high school students, more than a quarter of enrollment, lost their homes, but staff have managed to contact all but a half-dozen. Walker said about 80% of students connected with classes Wednesday.
The high school has given teachers lists of students who lost homes. Walker designated sixth period for discussing the fires so students wouldn’t be asked the same questions continually. Students and teachers, however, were free to talk about it as they needed.
English teacher Kelly Johnson is starting her 17th year. She says a caring teacher should always be nervous on the first day, but especially so this year. Navigating distance learning technology is hard enough, but now students are weighed down by trauma.
“I’m just trying to be there for them,” she said. “I’m just trying to teach them and treat them as humans.”
Building relationships was the mission of the day, same as any first day.
Johnson was relieved and delighted when students were able to interact with the slide show she created.
The wildfires and evacuations didn’t come up.
“I was planning to talk about the fire, but then I kicked into auto gear,” she said. They will talk about the fires soon, though, she said.
The fires didn’t arise in math teacher Anna Redding’s second period either. But when asked for one word about how students were feeling, one replied “sad.” Redding will check on that student later.
“I don’t know what the right thing is,” she said. “I don’t know what the wrong thing is.”
Redding presented students with a “You Matter Form,” another way for students to reach out for help if they need it.
Redding was evacuated for eight days. Five families with 21 people, some of them teachers, shared a home. She said they created a new and supportive family, but she is thrilled to be at work.
“When they said I could work in the building, I said, ‘Yahoo!’” she said. “I didn’t want to work from home.”
Superintendent Brent Barry said the district is trying to support its staff and students as well as creating a community rallying point.
“We know that when adults and kids, but especially kids, experience severe trauma, that structure and predictability and support are something that helps the healing begin,” Barry said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
- The Phoenix-Talent Families Fire Relief Fund is taking donations. OSBA has also created a Wildfire Resources page with links to places to donate to fire victims around the state.