North State fires put summer school on hold. Here's how one teacher supports her students

Nada Atieh
Redding Record Searchlight

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Driven by the extreme hot and dry conditions gripping the West, California's wildfire season came early — so, too, a new wave of disruptions to students who are trying to catch up after a lost year of learning due to the coronavirus.

Summer school teachers and camp leaders put a pause on classroom learning and activities last week during the most aggressive runs of the Lava, Tennant and Salt fires. All three North State forest fires led to urgent evacuation orders, and understandably, some children were scared.

Weed High school was being used as a base camp on Monday, June 28, 2021 as a base camp for firefighters working on the Lava Fire burning to the east of the city.

The focus in some classrooms shifted to answering students' questions on what they might have experienced and giving them a place to express themselves. Of concern is how to address the trauma while also keeping students from falling behind.

In Siskiyou County, some students attending summer school were too anxious to think about classes and were given the option to take a break from learning.

“Many of them who haven’t evacuated have had family members in their home who have evacuated. It’s really disrupted their daily lives all together. I am trying to be as flexible as possible but still maintain the integrity of the program,” said Melissa Ericsson, a teacher at Weed High School.

Ericsson extended her class by one week for her 20 students, given that summer school was supposed to end last Friday.

Similarly, classes were on hold at Castle Rock Union Elementary. That small school is in Castella, which off Interstate 5 is a midpoint between Lakehead, where the the Salt Fire is burning nearby, and Weed. The Lava Fire is burning just to the east of Weed.

Superintendent Autumn Funk said of the 25 students in summer school, some had to evacuate and classes had to hold until Monday.

The Salt Fire burned east of Interstate 5 near the Salt Creek exit in the Lakehead area on Wednesday, June 30, 2021. The blaze caused road closures and the evacuation of residents.

Weed High School moved classes online, and teachers are staying in touch with students via email.

One of Ericsson's students ended her class early, saying she is having a difficult time coping with the fires and doesn’t want to finish her class. 

“This is just an awful lot and that’s fine,” Ericsson said. “She’s not failing and is doing well, but anxiety is high for her right now and it’s not working for her.”

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Ericsson is working with her students to come up with alternative plans.

Kids are going to summer school to recover credits or simply retaking classes they passed to raise their grades and meet the California State University requirements, she said. She wants to make sure they are set up to succeed. 

'We're not running, we're paying attention'

A lot of how children react to something like a wildfire and evacuations depends on how the adults around them respond, said Robin See-Swenson, a psychotherapist in Weed.

See-Swenson said she has watched her community in panic over the fire and it can be triggering to people who have post-traumatic stress disorder.

Smoke rises from Mount Shasta's northwest flanks as seen from South Weed on Wednesday morning, July 7, 2021.

“When smoke comes up you watch people get really tense and upset. It’s a horror,” she said.

It’s important for people to ground themselves and reassure each other that although this is a close wildfire, they will be evacuated with advanced notice, she said. 

“We’re not running, we’re paying attention and will be notified if we need to move,” she said. “Sometimes it’s important to talk about how it’s the nature of the woods to burn and it needs to burn so it’s not so dangerous in the future.”

See-Swenson suggested a few evacuation preparedness safety tips:

  • Have clothes, pets and papers prepared incase you need to evacuate.
  • Reassure one another that you are safe and will have enough time to evacuate with plenty of time if the fire gets closer.
  • Figure out where the nearest evacuation center is and what resources there are in your community now.
  • If there are any isolated individuals in your town or neighborhood, check up on them periodically.

"The goal is to be present and get grounded. Stay away from things that wind you up and do things that will ground you and notice that we really are safe right now," she said. 

At Weed High School, Ericsson said her students are safe now and she will keep checking on them throughout the week.

"For the most part they’re all staying in contact. They know that they have a teacher who’s reaching out to them and trying to work with them and letting them know that it’s OK to not make progress this week and that we’ll figure things out next week," she said.

Nada Atieh is a Report For America corps member and education reporter focusing on childhood trauma and the achievement gap for the Redding Record Searchlight. Follow her on Twitter at @nadatieh_RS. Help local journalism thrive by subscribing today! And if you are able, please consider a tax-deductible gift toward her work.