Paradise students return to school 3 weeks after deadly wildfire

Camp Fire destroyed most schools in Paradise

By DARRAN SIMON, CNN
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Camp Fire burns in the hills on Nov. 11, 2018, near Oroville, California.

(CNN) - Three weeks after California's deadly wildfire scorched communities, Mary Ludwig's second-grade students returned to class for the first time on Monday in new surroundings.

The return for some 32,000 students in Butte County, including 4,832 displaced students, could provide some normalcy for children in 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.

Of Paradise's 12 school programs at nine locations, only Cedarwood Elementary was able to host students at its original location. The rest were relocated to Chico, Durham or Oroville.

Ponderosa's new home for the rest of the academic year will be another campus. Students attended classes at Durham Elementary. Ludwig and her colleagues spent much of last week getting 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 attend classes on other campuses in Butte County. A vacant storefront 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.

"Paradise Unified is not buildings. Teachers, students and families -- that's what Paradise Unified is," Superintendent Michelle John told reporters. "Our kids today are spread out throughout this whole county. ... We have kids at the mall. I never thought I'd say that. We have kids at a church in Chico. We have kids at the fairgrounds."

"We're still one big family, but we're spread out," she said.

At Paradise Elementary, third-grade teacher Robin Patterson was expecting only 38 of her 100 students to show up and four teachers will be sharing one room at a school in Oroville, she said, but they're remaining optimistic.

"We're going to color, have PE, talk to each other and, if their brain is anything like mine, nothing is going to go in and out very well for a little while," she said. "It's not about the academics for us. It's about loving each other and building the kids up. That's why we have positive sayings in the room, making them feel loved."

She added, "The kids need to see we all made it. We are safe. We're just going to move on."

'Second first day of school'

Kindra Britt, a Placer County Office of Education spokesperson who is serving as interim spokesperson for the Paradise district, 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.

The Butte County Office of Education said it is maintaining a list of 200 clinicians to help students and staff. About 85 of those were spread across 30 school locations Monday, the office said.

Britt said Monday would be a symbol of hope for the affected communities.

"We're calling it the 'second first day of school,'" she said. "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 former classmate from Paradise High School drove two hours to drop off the backpacks of supplies for students, Ludwig said.

In all, more than 1,200 backpacks filled with school supplies were distributed to Butte County students. The school district is also providing free meals to displaced students for the rest of the school year.

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 its path.

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

She said on Monday 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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