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Northern California Wildfire Survivors Return To School


Tomorrow - sorry - students from Paradise, Calif., will go back to school tomorrow but not in Paradise. The entire school population is still displaced by the devastating Camp Fire. Most are still struggling to meet basic needs, like shelter and clothing. Alex Hall brings us the story from Chico, Calif.

ALEX HALL, BYLINE: There's no going back to school - at least right now - in the burn zone. Paradise Elementary has been reduced to a pile of melted and charred debris. Paradise High School didn't burn down, but telephone and electrical wires hang low and exposed. And buildings contain toxic contaminants. Teachers have kept in touch with students via messaging apps.



HALL: At this student event at Chico High School, some teachers are seeing students in person for the first time since they frantically fled the Camp Fire three weeks ago.



AUSTIN: How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I want to - wait. Hold on. Selfie, I'm doing selfies with all...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: No, I've got to be in it, too.

HALL: Austin Jolley came to say goodbye to his teachers before he starts at a new school in Loomis, near Sacramento.

AUSTIN: I don't really plan on coming back up here. I mean, I'll - maybe I'll visit here and there, but I don't ever plan on intentionally staying here.

HALL: Jolley was a sophomore at Paradise High. He says he saw people trapped in cars by the fire, and he had to carry another student to the office after he fainted from the smoke. He doesn't plan to join his classmates back at a temporary Paradise High. He craves stability, so he's moving in with his grandfather in Placer County.

AUSTIN: I really hope that nothing like what happened in Butte County happens in Placer because that was so apocalyptic. For those who got out, they're going to remember it for the rest of their lives.

HALL: School officials are eager to get students back to a feeling of normalcy. On Monday, middle and high school students will begin independent study online. They'll also be able to meet with teachers in empty stores at the Chico Mall. But with most of the families scattered, administrators have no idea how many students will actually show up. The disaster recovery center, set up by FEMA in an emptied-out Sears, is one way parents and students can learn about what's happening with schools.

RINDY DEVOLL: We try not to say we don't know because we - people don't want that answer (laughter).

HALL: Rindy DeVoll works for the Butte County Office of Education.

DEVOLL: The reality is we understand that people are having to sometimes relocate, either temporarily or permanently, based on their own family needs.

SHERI SLATON: People like Sheri Slaton (ph). She and her grandkids are living in an RV away from town. Her daughter and more grandchildren are over an hour away in Redding. They've decided to homeschool the kids.

SLATON: They're going to have to travel from Redding to Paradise every day for school? Oh, that's crazy, you know? That's just crazy. We can't do that. Our vehicles can't handle it. Our budget can't handle the gas, you know? So that seems to be our option right now.

HALL: The Chico Mall is a temporary school site. Early next year, school officials hope to have permanent locations. The student population could go down with residents displaced.


HALL: Back at Chico High School, special ed aide Joette Rose just came out of a mandatory trauma training.

JOETTE ROSE: I understand that we have to take care of us. Part of that is knowing if I have a job or not.

HALL: Paradise teachers have been told they'll keep their jobs through the end of the school year. After that, the future is uncertain.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Hall in Chico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alex Hall

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