After evacuating in the smoky dusk on Wednesday, with the glow of nearby flames lighting their way, Scott Hicks and Courtney Lincoln were settling into a friend’s home when an email from a former student landed in both their inboxes. The message, spelled out in all capital letters, signaled a cry for help, with fire emojis only amplifying its urgency.
The text was short, an abbreviated distress call, almost like a flare shot into the night sky as a last resort to summon assistance, or at very least draw attention.
“Help,” the student wrote in the subject line. “We are evacuating,” he continued in the email. “The fire could be burning my house any minute now.”
He’s one of many students from East Grand School District in Granby the husband and wife educator team worried about as the East Troublesome fire tore its way through Grand County and into Rocky Mountain National Park last week, burning nearly 200,000 acres and displacing families already living with the daily disruptions of the pandemic.
East Grand School District’s four school buildings survived, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a quick return to classrooms for its 1,300 students, most of whom had resumed in-person classes this fall. The four-day district canceled instruction this week. Superintendent Frank Reeves anticipates having learning plans in place by Wednesday.
Teachers and school leaders in Grand and Larimer County school districts impacted by the fire — which grew to be the second largest in Colorado’s history — are bracing themselves to help students navigate the trauma they’ve endured over the last week. They’ll also have to confront their own trauma. For some, the fire stole their homes. For others, their sense of community has been shaken, and any semblance of normalcy they regained this fall now lay among the ashes.
But East Grand School District is better prepared to rise from those ashes after learning how to cope with one major crisis — COVID-19 — earlier this year.
“In a probably weird, twisted way,” the district was poised to deal with another emergency, said Abby Loberg, who teaches eighth grade social studies at East Grand Middle School.
Along with already having experienced the difficult transition to remote learning in the spring, the district had begun offering more counseling resources and implemented social-emotional components into students’ lessons, training staff over the summer and prioritizing social-emotional health this fall.
“So maybe in an odd way, it kind of helped having this come after COVID,” Loberg said.
Hicks, who teaches sixth grade social studies at East Grand Middle School, expects that some of the procedures and systems the district put in place in response to the pandemic will be useful in helping the school community recover from the wildfire.
The two tragedies stir up the same kind of anxiety and uncertainty, but they’ve left different marks on the community.
“This was so much scarier,” Hicks said of the East Troublesome fire, with an acute fear gripping the community as the fire burned and the prospect of life and death much more overwhelming.
“I don’t think (the pandemic) prepared us for the fear and trauma that this event is going to have us have to deal with,” Hicks said.
He foresees students needing a lot more support in the aftermath of the fire — and time to process the tragedy. The type of support each student requires will differ as much as student experiences with the fire vary.
Grand County has a broad geographic footprint, Hicks said, and the East Troublesome fire is “going to be a mass-trauma event. It’s going to be really tough.”
He points to the positives: few casualties from the fire and no one he and his wife know of who was seriously injured.
“But I can tell kids are pretty rattled by this,” Hicks said, “and parents, too.”
Reimagining school. Again.
Lincoln, Hicks’ wife and a district instruction and assessment coordinator, recalls evacuating on Wednesday night as “something out of a nightmare.” She can only imagine how jarring it was for the kids who had to flee.
“This is something that is going to impact them for the rest of their lives,” said Lincoln, who is staying with Hicks at a friend’s home in Tabernash. The couple’s home near the northern end of Lake Granby is still standing, but they’re not sure when they can return to it.
Once East Grand School District jumps back into classes, Hicks sees his job as one of watching and listening to stay in tune with what students need and following through with support. He realizes that teachers won’t have all the answers and will likely have to lean on counselors for additional support.
He was supposed to be instructing his students about longitude and latitude this week, but he knows those lessons will have to wait until his middle school students have had time to sort through their trauma and openly address it.
“Their social-emotional health is the basis for any kind of learning they’re going to do in the future,” said Christal McDougall, theater director at Middle Park High School in Granby.
As important as academics are, students’ mental health is a far more pressing priority, she said.
“The best thing we can do for students right now is to take care of their mental health and their mental well-being,” McDougall said, “because that will have much farther-reaching consequences than any missed class as far as I’m concerned.”
Both McDougall and Hicks have made consistent efforts in the last few days to get in touch with all of their students. They’ve used email, phone calls and text messages to reach students and confirm that they’re safe.
They’ve also both encouraged their students to contact one another as another means of support.
Hicks’ ongoing conversations with students about their safety, he said, “has just kind of reiterated why it’s so important to have school and to have awesome community.”
The routine and rhythm that the East Troublesome fire robbed from students in a matter of days is perhaps one of its cruelest consequences. Most of the district’s students were back in the classroom this fall, finding their stride in a new era of learning during the coronavirus.
“It breaks my heart to know that we had school, we were back in class and we were loving it,” Hicks said.
McDougall, who was able to stay at her home in Tabernash, tears up at the thought of her students scattered across the state.
“I’m totally worried, not because they’re not safe,” she said. “It’s just because they don’t know what’s going on, and I just want them to all be able to be together.”
When they can regroup remains a question mark, echoing the uncertainty the district has faced throughout the year while trying to educate students safely amid the pandemic.
It’s a lot of stress, for both teachers and students. Lincoln especially worries about students losing out on instruction time and particularly what that means for young learners working on reading and high school students on the cusp of graduation and in need of scholarships. All the turmoil they’ve had to cope with isn’t fair to them, she said, “and there’s nothing we can do.”
“How many times do we have to (reenvision) what school looks like this year?” Lincoln said.