Children return to school 3 weeks after California wildfire

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Monday marks a return to school and some semblance of routine for thousands of children who lost their homes to a deadly wildfire in Northern California.

Schools in Butte County have been closed since Nov. 8, when the Camp Fire ignited and quickly swept through the towns of Paradise, Concow and Magalia in what would become the nation’s deadliest wildfire in a century. At least 88 people were killed and dozens remain unaccounted for.

Officials at the Paradise Unified School District aren’t sure how many of their roughly 3,500 students will show up at makeshift schools that will temporarily replace the eight sites lost to the flames. Some families have left the state. Others are staying with friends or relatives across Northern California, too far to drive every day.

But nearly all the teachers are returning to provide a familiar and comfortable face to the children who are able to make it to class.

“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, 40, whose third-grade daughter, Mallory, is about to turn 9.

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

Two neighboring school districts have allowed children from Paradise to take over available space. Kids who previously went to Paradise Elementary School will go to school in nearby Oroville, while children from Ponderosa Elementary School will be at a school in Durham.

Paradise High School survived but is inaccessible as the region remains evacuated.

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

But academics will likely be secondary to dealing with trauma and reconnecting with friends, said Paradise High School Principal Loren Lighthall.

“They don’t have their church, they don’t have their school, they don’t have their work, they don’t have their friends, they don’t have any of that stuff and we’re asking them to write five-paragraph essays?” Lighthall said. “It’s just unreasonable at this point. We’re going to do it, but we’re going to be super flexible with what we require.”

Searchers have stopped their methodical search for victims in scorched cars and neighborhoods, but they remain on call if people believe they find bone fragments when they’re allowed back into evacuation zones.

Marissa Nypl, 47, is living with her family at her husband’s coworker’s home in West Sacramento, which is 90 miles (145 kilometers) from her 10-year-old daughter’s temporary school in Durham, until they can move into a rental home much closer. It’s too far to drive every day, but Nypl wants to be sure her daughter is there to be with her peers on the first day back for what will likely be an important part of the healing process.

The isolation has been hard for the fifth-grader, a shy girl who was just starting to build a strong group of friends.

“They’re going to need something that they feel like is still a normal part of life,” Nypl said, noting just about everything in town is gone. “The school’s going to be the only thing they have to latch onto to feel like something’s still routine.”