For nearly 80 years, Paradise Elementary School occupied a plot on Pearson Road. Students could walk to Paradise Intermediate, the local middle school, and the Golden Nugget Museum, where they went on field trips. But on Nov. 8, the Camp Fire reduced Paradise Elementary to rubble.
Now, in some parts of the schoolyard, small reminders of school day normalcy remain. The monkey bars and swings, made of sturdy metal, survived the fire. On the ground, there are children’s drawings, cardboard lunch trays and the odd chocolate milk carton.
Just across the street, Paradise Intermediate School was spared by the fire and sustained little structural damage. With concerns about smoke damage and possible pollution to the water supply, it will not be able to reopen the rest of the school year. Similarly, Paradise High School was not burned, but classes won’t resume any time soon.
Jim Hanlon, assistant superintendent of Chico Unified School District, said Paradise schools wouldn’t be able to open until next August, at the earliest. Paradise Unified School District had about 2,500 students enrolled. About 200 students have enrolled in Chico schools.
Some students, whose houses have burned down, need to find a home before choosing where they will go to school. Others are waiting to see if Paradise Unified finds another location to conduct classes, or are considering charter schools in the area. And some have already moved to other cities and will attend school there.
“We’re prepared to take whatever [students] we need to,” Hanlon said. “We have gone through all our school sites [and] determined what rooms we have. … We can hire Paradise teachers that have been displaced. We could temporarily bring in retired teachers.”
Paradise Unified School District was fully insured for fire damage and officials are looking to see what facilities they could use in Chico to accommodate their students, according to Hanlon. They are considering buildings formerly occupied by Toys “R” Us and Orchard Supply Hardware, but still would need to buy supplies like books and furniture. Butte County Superintendent Tim Taylor has also advocated for bringing in portable classrooms.
Paradise Unified School district has yet to announce a date for classes to resume. In neighboring Chico, students will return to school Dec. 3. Chico students will have missed 11 days of school in the fallout from the fire. Hanlon said that families from the Paradise area who are interested in enrolling in Chico Unified should contact the district office.
“We’ve gotten kids all the way from kindergarten to high school enrolled,” he said. “We want to welcome them. … If they want to know and wait for what Paradise has to offer, certainly they should do that. On the other hand, if they know that what they’re going to do is stay in Chico, we’re here to help.”
On Saturday, Miah Fisher, an eighth-grader at Paradise Intermediate, sifted through a mountain of dog supplies and clothes with her mother. Fisher’s family had fled the Camp Fire with their six pit bulls, and were visiting a pet supplies donation site at the Chico Airport. Inside the airport, volunteers had set up an animal shelter.
As Fisher looked through the pile, lifting up four-legged outfits for inspection, she explained that she had originally planned on going to Paradise High School next year, but the fire threw her plans into question. At the moment, she is considering attending Inspire School of Arts and Sciences, a charter school in Chico.
Paradise middle school students like Fisher were invited to a Nov. 11 meetup with basketball and snacks, to reunite students and teachers. But Fisher didn’t go.
“If I see even one of my friends missing, I’m going to break down,” Fisher said.
Paradise District Superintendent Michelle John told the Paradise Post that all the students and staff have been accounted for.
In the days following the fire, there has been mass confusion about missing persons. The list soared to over 1,000 missing people on Friday, but declined to 870 as of Wednesday. The increase, in part, was due to the publication of raw data that contained some duplicate names. Since then, some people have called in to have their names removed, and some remains have been identified. As of Wednesday, the number of fatalities is at 81.
Hanlon said Chico Unified, the county and Butte Behavioral Health are offering counseling for kids who have been emotionally affected by the experience. Chico Unified staff is also receiving training about the grieving process and trauma.
“They miss their friends, their home, their teachers. They’ve kind of lost their everything,” Hanlon said. Chico and Paradise school districts have already missed six days of school due to the fire, and after Thanksgiving break, there are more absences to come. Normally, missed school days have to be made up during breaks or summer to avoid putting state funding in jeopardy. But the Butte County Office of Education is applying to have these days excused.
Paradise High School’s sports teams have also been allowed to continue to compete.
“The CIF, California Interscholastic Federation, which controls all of athletics in California, has given them a waiver to keep their teams intact this year even though they’re not technically in school or competing in their districts,” Hanlon said.
He also said that Chico Unified is trying to share their athletic facilities with Paradise students, but it is difficult to accommodate both school districts’ teams.
Tessa Lawrie, a mother of four, is uncertain about where her three school-age children will go. She is waiting to see if their schools can find alternate buildings in Chico. Her son and daughter play basketball at Paradise High.
“We’re just kind of waiting to find out what happens,” Tessa said. “The good news is Paradise High’s girls and boys basketball have been graciously offered gym use in the community. They’re allowed to keep playing.”