It was like the first day of school all over again for Kara Myers’ son Carter, who for the most part was all smiles when he took to the playground at Hidden Valley Elementary School on Friday morning.
But the boy, 7, insisted his mother stand next to him when he got in line with the rest of his second grade class. It was not his regular school, after all.
Carter’s school, Hidden Valley Satellite School, was destroyed nearly three weeks ago by the devastating Tubbs fire. Its 85 students were taken in by Hidden Valley’s main campus on Bonita Vista Drive.
“Although this is a new experience for him, I think he’s comfortable because he’s with his classmates,” Myers said. “It’s more of an adventure than a scary time.”
On Friday, Santa Rosa City Schools reopened 13 of its 24 campuses closed by the fires. They included the district’s elementary school sites, as well as Piner and Maria Carrillo high schools, Rincon Valley Middle School and Santa Rosa Accelerated Charter. The district plans to open its other 11 campuses on Monday. Piner Olivet and Mark West school districts in Santa Rosa and Geyserville schools are to reopen campuses on Monday.
At Hidden Valley, the day was marked by a range of emotions, from smiles and laughter to parent tears and school-age nervousness. Hidden Valley Satellite School on Parker Hill Road was among the thousands of structures destroyed by the recent fires. The main campus has 647 students.
“This is like her second first day at school,” said Justin Wangler, whose daughter Delanie attended Satellite.
Throughout the morning, Hidden Valley staff and teachers warmly greeted Satellite students and parents. Signs were posted all over the school welcoming the students. One sign read, “One school, one big heart.” The custodian at the satellite school, Armando Hernandez, was on hand, giving kids and parents high-fives, hand shakes and hugs.
“These kids are trying to adjust to a new environment,” Hernandez said. “It was a big family there.”
Five classrooms at Hidden Valley were repurposed for Satellite’s pre-K to second grade students, said Hidden Valley principal Jacqui Parker, adding that she and other staff are doing everything they can to make the Satellite students and parents feel at home.
“It’s truly a strong community, and that includes everyone, from parents, teachers, staff, district leadership and neighbors,” she said. “The level of compassion has been amazing throughout this time.”
After the morning bell rang, Hidden Valley staff invited parents into “safe spaces” where they discussed the events of the last three weeks, including ways that parents can support their children. District staff said about five Hidden Valley staffers and 178 students lived in the “burn zone” and were directly affected by the fire. It’s unclear how many of those lost homes.
For Friday’s reopening, the district dispatched a small army of counselors to help address grief-stricken parents and students. Chaplains and a therapy dog were also on hand at Hidden Valley.
At Piner High School, Emily Núñez, 15, said she was eager to get back to school and resume her studies. But Núñez, a sophomore, said she was feeling a bit “overwhelmed” given the amount of school time she’s lost and the impact the fires have had on her friends and family. Her father, who had only recently returned to work, lost his workplace in the fires, and her aunt lost her home in Fountaingrove.
“It felt like I couldn’t do enough to help,” she said.
Kyla Wegman, a district counselor who works with English language learners, emphasized the importance of students coming together again since the fires. Wegman, who met with students at Piner, said student tears were soon followed by laughter.
“The hardest part was students not having their friends to go through this with,” Wegman said. “Literally, they shed a tear and then started laughing.”
Piner High Principal Tim Zalunardo said students exuded both comfort and joy when they came together Friday. About 80 students lost their home in the fire, which caused particularly widespread destruction in the Coffey Park neighborhood. About seven Piner staff and teachers lost homes, he said.
“For the majority of students, it feels good to be here and reconnect,” he said.
But Zalunardo said it will likely be a long time before students completely comprehend the magnitude of the natural disaster and the long-term impact on the local community, local housing, the economy and their individual social networks.
That in itself will be an important life lesson for the students, many of whom will grow up with the aftermath being a part of their lives. He said the disaster will likely become a “contextual marker” for how they will come to understand the world.
Aside from Hidden Valley, other elementary schools that reopened Friday included: Biella, Brook Hill, Burbank, Lehman, Lincoln, Monroe, Proctor Terrace and Steele Lane. Kenwood was also scheduled to reopen Friday.
SRCS campuses to be opened on Monday include: Comstock Middle, Cook Middle, Slater Middle, Santa Rosa Middle, Elsie Allen High, Montgomery High, Ridgeway High, Santa Rosa High, Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts, Santa Rosa French American Charter, Cesar Chavez Language Academy and Lewis Preschool.
You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @renofish.