Thousands of Students Return to School After Camp Fire in Northern California

Kimberly Spainhower hugs her daughter Chloe, 13, while her husband, Ryan Spainhower, searches through the ashes of their burned home in Paradise on Nov. 18, 2018. (Credit: Josh Edelson / AFP / Getty Images)

Kimberly Spainhower hugs her daughter Chloe, 13, while her husband, Ryan Spainhower, searches through the ashes of their burned home in Paradise on Nov. 18, 2018. (Credit: Josh Edelson / AFP / Getty Images)

Three weeks after California’s deadly wildfire scorched communities, Mary Ludwig’s second grade students will return to class for the first time on Monday in new surroundings.

The return to school for some 32,000 students in Butte County, including about 5,000 displaced students from Paradise, could provide some normalcy for children in many California communities recovering from the Camp Fire. The blaze burned for more than two weeks, killing 88 people.

The Camp Fire destroyed Ludwig’s Ponderosa Elementary, along with most schools in the Paradise Unified School District. Ponderosa’s new home for the rest of the academic year will be on another campus. Students will attend classes at Durham Elementary. Ludwig and her colleagues spent much of last week getting their classrooms ready.

“I miss my students. I love my students. I miss teaching them,” Ludwig, 50, said Sunday in a phone interview. “I’m just excited to be with them again and to be in their life every day and to inspire them.”

Many Paradise Unified School District students will attend classes on other campuses in Butte County. A vacant store front in the Chico Mall has been transformed into a drop-in lab for students from Paradise High School and Paradise Intermediate School for independent learning until a permanent location can be found.

“It’s very emotional because when we left that day, we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Shelly Kiefer, a Paradise Elementary teacher told CNN-affiliate KGO-TV last week.

‘Second first day of school’

Placer County Office of Education spokesperson Kindra Britt said teachers have been trained on how to recognize trauma in students and in themselves. Even though teachers are dealing with their own trauma, they’ve come to work every day, Britt said.

Experts on trauma will be on hand on the campuses, KGO-TV reported.

Britt said Monday will be a symbol of hope for the affected communities. “We’re calling it the ‘second first day of school,'” she said.

She added: “We might not be able to give them back their homes at this time, but we can give them back their schools.”

Others in the community have worked to bring normalcy to the lives of students. Ludwig’s classmate from Paradise High School drove two hours to drop off the backpacks of supplies for students, Ludwig said.

Ludwig said schools in the county have welcomed the displaced students, teachers and staff.

Last week, a Durham staff member stood outside the school to greet Ponderosa staff members when they pulled up to the school to begin planning for Monday.

“That just really made the transition joyful,” said Ludwig, who along with a fellow teacher and bus driver helped ferry 22 Ponderosa students to safety on November 8 as the Camp Fire scorched everything in their path.

Ludwig said second grade Durham teachers also brought clothes for Ponderosa teachers to pick out.

She hopes to start the day slowly, with art work. And they will sit together on a green rug in the middle of the classroom to read out loud. It’s been a hard month, she said.

“It’s going to be different, but I think it’s also going to be wonderful,” she said.

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