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“The only piece of their life that’s normal”: Schools are scrambling to help 800 kids displaced by the Marshall fire

Boulder Valley School District, already struggling to staff school buses, has had to create a new bus route and change others to pick up students affected by the fire

The Hanel family is staying in Boulder about 20 minutes from their now-destroyed home. The children, Porter, Charlotte, and Sampson, have received free busing to and from Coal Creek Elementary and Louisville Middle schools through Boulder Valley School District. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)
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After the Marshall fire tore through Boulder County on Dec. 30, razing more than 1,000 homes in its path, the count of students without stable housing in Boulder Valley School District swelled from about 300 to more than 1,100.

Figuring out how to keep their children attending classes wasn’t necessarily the first priority for families who suffered devastating losses. But as the blaze died down, leaving neighborhoods in charred ruins, those families found themselves grasping for any fragments of normalcy.

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School, for many kids, became the one constant they could count on.

“That’s the only piece of their life that’s normal right now,” said Katie Hanel, a mother of three whose Louisville home was among those reduced to piles of debris.

Ensuring that kids get the help they need became an immediate priority for BVSD, which pulled staff together to begin surveying which students were displaced by the fire and how best to aid them in the hazy aftermath. Tending to students coping with trauma has become a specialty in the district of more than 29,000 students, which, on top of pandemic stresses, dealt with a mass shooting at the Table Mesa King Soopers before the Marshall fire blew up into the state’s most destructive in history in terms of the number of homes leveled.

Colorado’s school districts are federally mandated to provide extra support to homeless students, with the goal of helping them stay in school and find more stable housing. The students receive free school meals, no longer have to pay any school-issued fees and can get assistance with transportation to and from school. With hundreds of newly homeless students, BVSD has leaned heavily on individual schools to aid impacted students.

“You basically go one day at a time, and we’re constantly looking at the forest and at the tree and it’s a parallel effort,” said Ema Lyman, who is the district’s McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act specialist. The federal act requires school districts to aid students struggling with housing and provide resources to help them with basic needs so they can stay in school.

Much of the district’s focus in the days following the fire centered on making sure displaced students had access to transportation to and from school, either through a school bus, public transportation tickets or gas reimbursement, Lyman said.

The Hanel family is staying in Boulder, about 20 minutes from their now-destroyed home. The Boulder Valley School District has provided the children, Porter, Charlotte and Sampson, free busing to and from Coal Creek Elementary and Louisville Middle schools. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

The district has tallied 561 students whose homes were destroyed by the fire and close to 250 additional students displaced. So far, 163 of those students have indicated they need the district’s help with transportation, with 120 of them riding school buses to and from school.

That has introduced new challenges to the district’s transportation department, which typically shuttles more than 4,800 students on 149 routes each day and has struggled to have enough bus drivers on the road this year. BVSD started the school year down 71 bus drivers compared to the 2019-20 school year and currently has a force of 152 drivers total, often pulling in other staff members from the transportation department to cover routes as needed.

Trying to help so many displaced students has only complicated district efforts to bus kids. 

“Geographically, we’re covering a much bigger area with transportation,” said Rob Price, assistant superintendent of operational services for the district, as students have relocated to Longmont, Thornton and Arvada among other communities.

Bus drivers are making a lot of “cross trips,” Price said. That means they’re driving to and from neighborhoods outside the attendance zone for each school.

Additionally, drivers are taking on longer routes, and after many families moved to Boulder, the district created a new one-off route that travels from north to south Boulder and drops kids off at multiple schools in Louisville and Superior, said Amy Thompson, Safe Routes to School co-coordinator for BVSD. The district is also exploring the possibility of sending shuttles out into the community to pick up older students arriving on public transportation.

“It’s taking every resource we possibly have to make this work on a daily basis within transportation,” Price said.

“A beacon of hope” 

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Lyman, who has been in her role for a decade, is a team of one. But she partners with a staff member at each of Boulder Valley’s 57 schools who help make sure homeless students get additional support. Sometimes, she works with a principal or assistant principal and other times a counselor or the school’s registrar.

Lyman, a resident of north Boulder for the past 40 years, had an idea of what schools and areas would be in the fire zone as the Marshall fire rode wind gusts exceeding 100 mph through her county.

“I knew immediately that my caseload would go up,” Lyman said.

None of the districts’ school buildings were demolished or heavily damaged by the fire, though some were left with smoke damage. District leaders circulated a form to staff members and students’ families the night after the fire so they could understand who had been affected by the fire and to what degree. 

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Lyman tracked lists of impacted students and helped field responses, which she said “were coming in furiously.”

She relied on schools to connect with their students and tell her the kinds of specific support they could use. Besides lining up transportation for students, the district prioritized meeting the mental health needs of students, families and staff members, with BVSD psychologists and counselors as well as therapists from other districts available to talk and listen.

Schools like Coal Creek Elementary School in Louisville have also pushed ahead with their own recovery efforts tailored to the needs of students and families reeling from the fire. The homes of about 60 students from the school — which has close to 380 students — were leveled. Before the fire, none of the school’s students were homeless, Principal Brian Muñoz said.

He was relieved to know the school had largely been untouched by the fire and that everything from students’ artwork hanging on the walls to their school supplies stored in classrooms was still intact.

The school is “a beacon of hope” for students, staff and families, Muñoz said, particularly as they try to reconstruct their lives, with some students living at hotels or staying with friends and others getting by in rentals.

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After the fire, Muñoz coordinated with the school’s parent-teacher association to create a donation and giveaway center stationed at the school’s parking lot, anchored by storage pods. With help from nonprofit organizations, corporations, individual community members, and BVSD’s foundation, Impact on Education, families have been able to pick up food, gift cards, book bags of supplies, stuffed animals, toys, toiletries, clothing, shoes, hats, wallets, winter wear and more. 

The giveaway has woven the school community even tighter together and shown kids in the midst of catastrophe “how the human spirit can come together to create that community and to give,” Muñoz said.

The PTA also organized a gift distribution, with community members stepping up to replace special Christmas gifts that perished in the fire, said Molly Trappe, president of the school’s PTA. Her own home dodged the fire, but many of her close friends lost their home or are facing serious damage from fire, smoke and water.

“They’re our friends and they’re our neighbors and they’re our community, and it takes a village,” Trappe said. “We’re all in it together.”

Katie and Atman Hanel at the Waterloo, a restaurant they co-own in Louisville. For now, the family is living in Boulder, but their three kids still are in school in Louisville. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Hanel’s family is relying on friends and teachers from Coal Creek Elementary School to help navigate the uncertain path. She and her husband and their three children — two of whom attend the elementary school — were visiting family in Florida when the fire broke out. They returned to what Hanel describes as “a war zone.” Plastic Christmas lights, now melted, hang from trees in what was once their front yard. Bricks are strewn everywhere, and bits of Hanel’s wedding china are sprinkled through the rubble. 

A pile of ash stands several feet tall, Hanel said, “but then you can see little pieces of life sticking through it.”

Her family plans to rebuild, but she knows they’re a long way from returning. For now, they’re staying at a home in Boulder owned by her parents.

When they arrived at her parents’ house almost a week after the fire, toting little more than swimsuits and shorts, they were greeted by bags of clothes that families from the community had left at the entryway to keep them warm in the winter.

“I’ve always known that our community is a tightknit, special place,” Hanel said, “but never did we expect this degree of support from everybody.”


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