Hard-hit Oregon districts are rising from the ashes
Monday, October 26, 2020
September wildfires spared most Oregon school buildings, but they left deep emotional and economic scars on districts and their communities.
The fires destroyed more than 4,000 homes ─ over half in the Medford-area communities of Phoenix and Talent.
Phoenix-Talent Superintendent Brent Barry said as much as 30% of district families have lost everything. Twenty-five staff members also lost their homes, roughly 5% of employees.
“It’s a miracle all our schools are still standing. That’s going to be for a reason,” Barry said. “That’s going to be a pillar of hope moving forward. We know schools are the hubs of our communities.”
As an extension of our continuing OREdNews coverage, beginning today OSBA is telling personal stories of hope and perseverance from the state’s three hardest-hit districts: Phoenix-Talent, McKenzie and Santiam Canyon. These “Rising from the Ashes” stories, told in images and words, will show where support is needed most to help Oregon students and their families rebuild.
“We are seeing incredible resilience from our students, their families and school staffs,” said Jim Green, OSBA’s executive director. “Communities are pulling together, with a lot of help. But more help is needed.”
In Phoenix-Talent, the school district will be central to restoring the communities, according to Barry. The American Red Cross set up an emergency shelter in Phoenix Elementary School and thanks to neighboring district Eagle Point, an outreach center is housed in a preschool for families to pick up donations, teachers to hold virtual classes, and students to work and use the internet in a smoke-free and quiet place.
The fires came during an already difficult time. Schools and families were preparing for a school year of learning through a pandemic. Distance learning presents an additional challenge for students and staff displaced by the wildfires.
“There have been a lot of barriers for students who are doing the lessons in their cars or in hotel rooms while their other three siblings are also on live lessons,” said McKenzie River Community School kindergarten teacher Xochilt Diaz. “There are a lot of people that are really just trying to have their basic needs met right now, and that is a challenge enough.”
The McKenzie River School District is a small district of 220 students east of Eugene. Roughly a quarter of students lost their homes, according to Superintendent Lane Tompkins.
Remote learning started three weeks after the fire, despite limited internet access in the area.
“Students were accessing Wi-Fi outside a FEMA tent to get online,” Tompkins said.
Tompkins is thankful for the outpouring of support to their small district. Community partners are working to provide families with internet access and essential supplies. The school gym is being used as a relief center as well as a storage facility for overflow donations.
At the Santiam Canyon School District, between 20% and 30% of the district’s 600 students lost homes, according to Superintendent Todd Miller. Eight staff members, roughly 10% of the staff, lost their homes to fire, including high school teacher Debbie Fawcett.
“The students don't even have homes,” she said. “I didn't even have a home. How am I going to teach? And how am I going to be in the right frame of mind to be that person that I need to be for my students?”
The district recently passed its first bond measure and was within weeks of opening the new junior/senior high school when the wildfires struck. Now school staff are tasked with ensuring families get their basic needs met while also putting Chromebooks and hotspots in students’ hands.
In many small towns, schools represent the community’s lifeblood ─ the public cheers at sporting events, attends school concerts and helps fundraising efforts. In the wake of this devastation, the same communities are coming together to rebuild.
“Tragedies can bring people together,” said Miller of Santiam Canyon. “Schools are that hub of hope for the community, and we believe we have the staff and support systems in place to do that.”
OSBA has established a Wildfire Resources page that includes links to donate to the hardest-hit communities: Phoenix-Talent; McKenzie; and Santiam Canyon.