Annie Munger helps her children Canyon (foreground), Tennessee (left) and Liberty pick out toys Wednesday in Gates. The Vet Center organized Toys for Tots donations for families affected by the wildfires. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Tennessee and Liberty Munger, ages 9 and 7, were thrilled to start school Wednesday, even if it was distance learning. Their 4-year-old brother, Canyon, kept asking when he could go to school.
After morning classes, they headed to the emergency center at the Gates Community Church of Christ for a meal and to pick out some toys: new basketballs, a couple of mitts, a doll. Like hundreds of Oregon students from Medford to the Willamette Valley to the coast, the Munger children lost all their worldly belongings in September wildfires.
Their school district, Santiam Canyon, eased into the school year Wednesday. The transition is difficult on multiple levels: Teachers and students are still processing the fire’s emotional toll, while facing practical learning challenges of limited internet access during a pandemic.
They talked more about their desire to be in classrooms than the fire itself, but the devastation and pain linger.
“It’s nice to have them home because I know they are safe,” said the children’s mother, Annie Munger, “but they need to go to school.”
Home right now is a friend’s house.
Nearly everyone was evacuated in the district, which stretches along Oregon 22 from Mill City to Idanha. The highway is closed in Gates, and some families can’t get to their homes.
Staff have been delivering school materials to students scattered from Salem to Bend. Some families can’t afford gas money to return; others are just overwhelmed by loss. Students have reported in from Montana, Idaho, Washington and California.
Between 20% and 30% of the district’s 600 students lost homes, according to Superintendent Todd Miller. Some families still aren’t sure whether their houses are standing. Eight staff members, roughly 10% of the staff, lost their homes, and many others suffered property damage.
On Wednesday, a handful of staff worked from the high school gymnasium so they could access the internet.
Out front, Principal Angela Rasmussen helped sophomore Natalie Noggle log into her first class. Staff didn’t know Noggle needed internet access until she picked up her supplies that morning.
Noggle is staying with a friend, and her only internet access is the phone she bought with her own money.
The district has run out of hot spots because fire destroyed internet access. Noggle plans to continue working in front of the school until she gets a hot spot next week.
Nearby construction created a constant din on this unseasonably warm morning. Noggle shifted frequently, trying to get comfortable on the concrete steps with the sun in her face, but she persisted.
When Rasmussen checked on her, Noggle announced she had completed an assignment.
“Yay, first assignments!” Rasmussen said. “The world of education is back.”
“It was nice to work my brain again,” Noggle said.
Seventh grader Kayla Rusk, who came by with her mother to pick up supplies, said it felt close to normal to be talking with teachers again. She is scared to be home alone now, though, and teachers on a video call aren’t enough.
Debbie Tank, an instructional assistant, lost her home as did her parents and sister. They fled with little more than their clothes and animals.
“I wish we didn’t have COVID right now, because there are some people I would love to put my arms around,” Tank said.
She said she was thankful that fire did not reach the new junior/senior high school, financed by passage of a $17.9 million bond measure in 2019. It is expected to open in the next few months.
Rasmussen described a roller coaster of emotions as first there were false reports the school had burned, then she found out it was saved but later learned it has extensive smoke damage.
“The high right now is school starting,” she said. “The low is we don’t get to be in our building with our kids.”
Paper bags of school supplies sat on the gym floor, unclaimed by students.
“We’re going to find them,” Rasmussen said. “I feel a responsibility to create stability in our students’ lives.”
Hallie Weir was among the parents picking up a hot spot Wednesday. She lost her home and couldn’t get the hot spot Tuesday because she was in a car accident. She had her five children in a rented SUV.
“It’s hard to leave anyone behind,” she said.
Weir was pleased school was starting because “it’s a good distraction.” Her children all wanted to just get back to a more normal school year.
Todd Reeser, the dean of students, called to Weir as she left the district office. This is Reeser’s 25th year at the district, and he knew Weir when she was a high school student.
Reeser was on his way to Salem to replace a student’s charging cord. He worries about his students with difficult home lives. The fire has increased mental health stressors while making it harder for school staff to keep an eye on students.
Teacher Jennifer Dodge’s home survived, but the fire has left her two children emotionally fragile. She brought them to work with her so they could have Wi-Fi.
Dodge wasn’t sure how she would approach students who lost their homes.
“We will let these kids know that even though they are displaced, they are not alone,” she said. “These poor kids have just gone through hell in the past few months. … They need this.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA