Of the nearly 1,000 structures reduced to rubble by the Marshall fire, not one was a school belonging to the Boulder Valley School District, clearing the way for the district to welcome students back to schools Wednesday as scheduled.
The plan to reopen schools in the fire-ravaged county comes as more than 10,000 people remain without gas, and while the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office continues to investigate the fire’s cause, now with help from the FBI and ATF.
Authorities announced Sunday that one of three people reported missing after Marshall fire’s rapid spread, an elderly man in Superior, had been found safe. Crews searched with cadaver dogs for the others, one in Marshall and the other in Superior.
The effort to restore gas service was expected to take days, with crews going door-to-door to make repairs and relight pilot lights, Xcel Energy said.
The area’s school district, with about 30,000 students, reported that all 56 of its school buildings are still standing after the fire, which as of late Sunday had spread across 6,219 acres and damaged an additional 127 homes and businesses.
“Our buildings are in good shape,” district spokesman Randy Barber told The Colorado Sun on Sunday evening. “We feel very strongly that the concerns that we had with utilities have been worked through or will be by that day.”
Those concerns include access to electricity and natural gas. Power was restored at all the district’s schools as of Sunday morning, Barber said. The district expects Xcel Energy to turn back on natural gas at all schools by Tuesday.
Schools have been at the top of priority lists as Boulder County has inched forward in its recovery efforts, Barber said.
“Everyone in this situation has really understood the importance of schools,” Barber said, particularly in a crisis.
“When you have students that are impacted by a situation like this, having a place, a stable place that they can go…it’s priceless in terms of what it provides to those families who are trying to deal with so much,” he added.
Because of winter break, school buildings were largely vacant as the blaze, spurred by winds exceeding 100 mph, whipped across Boulder County starting Thursday. Barber said the district was “lucky” that schools were closed.
The district’s maintenance teams have completed building assessments across the district. Barber believes they were able to reach all 56 locations.
Security footage from campuses in the burn zone shows flames invading school grounds but stopping short of buildings. Schools did suffer smoke damage, which crews have been working to clean up, he said.
More damage could be lingering beneath the blanket of snow covering schoolyards.
Meanwhile, hundreds of school staff members and students are reeling from losing their homes or suffering significant damage and evacuating their neighborhoods. BVSD created separate online surveys for staff and students’ families to try to get a better understanding of how the fire impacted those it employs and educates.
The surveys, available through an informational website the district developed in the wake of the Marshall fire, indicate that so far about 180 staff members were impacted by the fire through the destruction of their home, severe damage to their home or because they were displaced upon being evacuated.
More than 300 families notified the district that they were affected by the fire in one of those ways, Barber said.
As the district prepares to reopen classrooms, it’s also facing the prospect of a staff shortage — a challenge it’s contended with for most of the school year amid the pandemic.
“We’ve been worried about staffing all year long, and with the number of people that are impacted it’s a definite concern but we’re going to continue to work through it,” Barber said.
The district, which has close to 5,000 staff members, is raising pay for substitute teachers to $175 a day on Mondays through Thursdays and to $200 on Fridays, according to an announcement on the website it created to keep staff and students informed.
Schools are also in need of child care workers, food services staff, bus drivers and custodians — positions many Colorado districts are struggling to fill.
The district is also making its BVSD trauma response team available to students — both virtually and in schools — to help them cope with their latest source of trauma after they already endured more than a year-and-a-half of a pandemic and a mass shooting that claimed 10 lives at a Boulder King Soopers last March.
“The number of things that have happened in this community over the last year, it’s incredible,” Barber said.
But, he noted, district staff are incredible, in a much different way.
They’ll do everything possible “to wrap their arms around these kids,” he said.