Returning to school after winter break took on a new meaning at an elementary school located in one of the heavily fire-damaged communities in Santa Rosa, California.
Students at Schaefer Elementary School, located in the Coffey Park community, returned to their school building Jan. 9 after a three-month absence as a result of the October 2017 wildfires that blazed through their community. Waiting at the front entries of the school were first responders, staff and community leaders waving welcome-back signs and cheering. Students were also greeted by a variety of live comfort animals that included an alpaca named O’Malley. Inside, students were treated to more cheering staff, smiles and greetings from friends, plus chocolate-covered donuts with sprinkles and hot chocolate.
The fanfare was the result of concerned school leadership who wanted to ensure the students’ return to school was a good memory after the turmoil they have gone through over the past few months
“The students were evacuated from their homes in what was a high tension situation,” said Jamie Worthington, the principal at Schaefer. “It was pretty scary. We just wanted the students to have a positive experience coming back.”
As part of the return to school, first-responders handed each student a “comfort” stuffed animal.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who is working under the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to clear the non-household hazardous waste from across four counties in Northern California, attended the reopening celebrations.
“I wanted to attend this celebration,” said Capt. Darell Coffey, Regional Field Office Battle Caption. “I’ve seen how hard the Corps’ constructors have been working to clear this area and it’s always good to see firsthand the fruits of our contracts. However, this reopening means the children are getting to return to a sense of normalcy. Plus, the fact that I have the same name as this area makes it more personal for me.”
Three weeks after the start of the school year, wildfires blazed through the Coffey Park community, destroying more than 1,000 homes. Nearly all the children at the school were from the neighborhood and although Schaefer Elementary School received no structural damage, the school did sustain smoke damage.
Uncertainties about air quality in Coffey Park during debris removal motivated school administrators to keep the school closed for more than two months, but the Corps’ work to clear nearby parcels of fire debris, plus air monitoring data, gave the school the all-clear to bring the students back.
While the school was closed, students and teachers attended classes on other campuses within the district.
“This is a major milestone for the children and the community,” Worthington said. “There are still other challenges facing the community, but we will do what we always do and rise above them.”