SPOKANE — Three months ago, Hallett Elementary resembled a picture book, nestled in a grove of ponderosa pine trees and marshy wetlands. The first-graders could look out their classroom windows to see nature and wildlife: squirrels scurrying along the dirt and birds whistling through the air.
“Every now and then, you’d have snakes come slithering in the door,” said Ryan Grant, Medical Lake teacher’s union president and an educator in the district.
The flames of the devastating Gray fire that ravaged Medical Lake licked the building of the school. While it remained undamaged, the wilderness outside has lost some of its whimsy. Blackened earth and burnt snags replaced the vibrant setting.
“The kids came back to a nightmare,” Grant said.
After the Gray fire and Oregon Road fire near Elk consumed over 700 buildings combined, the Medical Lake and Riverside school districts grappled with how best to provide for the needs of their students, for whom schools have become a refuge in their new normal.
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In the 1,900-pupil district, Superintendent Kim Headrick estimates 50 students have been impacted by the Gray wildfire. Their top needs from schools are transportation and mental health, as well as items like school supplies or clothing.
Some kids’ homes were razed, leading them to seek temporary residence outside of the district’s boundaries. The district ferries some kids back to their school of origin if students want, Headrick said.
“The stability went away pretty darn quick,” Grant said. “For the older kids, some of their friends haven’t come back.”
Headrick said keeping students in Medical Lake schools is a priority. About 15 students left the district, displaced because of the fire, going as far as Idaho.
“The intent is to ensure that students are able to maintain consistent school experience,” Headrick said. “Research has shown that more transitions that students have moving from one school to another school to another school is detrimental to their overall educational progress.”
Mental and behavioral health struggles in students aren’t limited to the dozens who lost homes.
“There’s stress within families, there’s stress with our kiddos. And I think it’s even the kids that didn’t necessarily lose their home, but this has been a whole community-wide experience, right?” Headrick said. “We still have families who are driving past their neighbor’s home, and it’s not there anymore.”
The school provides certified counselors and has existing group therapy programs to aid students affected by loss.
While insecurity is felt district-wide, so is a lingering perseverance.
Volunteers gathered for three recent weekend wildfire cleanup days. The district has dispersed over $6,000 in donations to students, including a project where needy kids can add items to an Amazon cart and the district purchases them, including warm clothing, school supplies and basketball shoes. One student didn’t realize his shoes had succumbed to the fire until recent basketball tryouts, Grant said.
Community support coupled with internal strength in students has cushioned their adjustment.
“It’s a real testament to them,” Grant said. “Our kids are durable. We undersell them sometimes.”
The Riverside School District, which has 1,600 students, serves 64 affected by the Oregon Road fire that burned Elk and other areas around northern Spokane County.
Riverside also is bussing kids in who were displaced to another district — over 30 miles from the Central Valley School District, over 15 miles from Mead and from Deer Park.
“It makes my heart feel really good that they feel supported, that they want to be with their teachers, they want to be with their principals, their staff and part of our community,” Superintendent Ken Russell said. “It’s actually one of the most beautiful parts of what otherwise has been a really challenging situation.”
In the aftermath of the wildfire that sparked Aug. 18, the district opted to pause school a week, from the original start date of Aug. 30.
“I think that let them get their stuff together, basically to get Maslow’s hierarchy of needs really established before we build in the school year,” he said.
The delay also allowed administration to mobilize resources. Through Innovia, the district established an Elk community fund that now stands at more than $50,000, fundraised in part through spirit events hosted at Riverside High School’s football games. Eyeing a new van, the district has received a $30,000 grant through the Innovia Foundation’s joint wildfire fund.
In addressing mental health needs, the district is empowered by an existing grant through Spokane County, instituting a pilot program that screens students at the start of the year and intervenes based on a standardized tier system.
Russell said regular attendance has increased, as has enrollment in the rural, though growing, district.
“School is probably the safest place they have going on,” Russell said. “It’s the most normal, they’re around their friends or around the teachers that they care about.”