Spared by the fire that leveled surrounding neighborhoods, John B. Riebli Elementary School is an “oasis in the middle of devastation,” says Mark West Union School District Superintendent Ron Calloway.
However, the Mark West Springs Road school will not be reopening anytime soon.
The elementary school, home to 460 students, will remain closed indefinitely even as the district prepares to reopen its four other schools Monday.
The school campus is not safe until toxic materials in adjacent neighborhoods are removed in a cleanup overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Calloway said.
“This was not a brush fire — there were homes that were burned,” Calloway said Friday, sitting on bench near the entrance to the school. “The ash and toxins in homes that burned lay in the area. That has to be remediated by the EPA and, obviously, the Army Corps of Engineers.”
Just south and west of Riebli lay the remains of the Larkfield neighborhood that was destroyed by the Tubbs fire three weeks ago. From the school’s property line, the potent smell of a firestorm that incinerated nearly everything was unmistakable.
“If that ash comes up in a heavy wind ... the remediation of that is what we’re facing,” Calloway said.
The fire dealt a vicious blow to families served by the Mark West district. Calloway said 216 students from 192 families lost homes, along with 16 district staff.
On Monday, nearly all of Sonoma County’s students will be back in school. Most of Mark West Union’s 1,450 students will also be back in class that day, but Riebli students will be dispersed among the district’s other schools.
More than half of Riebli’s students, grades three to six, will be moved to San Miguel Elementary, while the rest of the school’s students, from kindergarten to second grade, will be hosted at Mark West Elementary. That required staff to move desks, chairs, computers and teaching materials.
“We’re moving a school, to the extent possible,” Calloway said.
He said he doesn’t know how long Riebli will remain closed. That depends on how long it takes to clean up the toxins in the surrounding neighborhood, he said.
“Obviously, student and staff safety is paramount, and that’s why we decided to move the school,” he said.
On the other side of Highway 101, the neighboring Piner-Olivet District in northwest Santa Rosa is facing a similar challenge.
The district will resume classes Monday for most of its 1,400 students. But its Schaefer Elementary School, which sits a few blocks from where 1,000-plus homes burned in Coffey Park, won’t reopen until after the cleanup, said Superintendent Carmen Diaz-French. The school remains inside a zone closed to the general public.
Schaefer students will be placed in 11 classrooms spread across the district’s three other campuses, returning to school on Wednesday. Before the fire, Schaefer had about 420 students, Diaz-French said. But educators are uncertain how many will return.
“We’re hoping to be able to go back after the cleanup of the community,” she said.
Administrators sought expert advice on the effects of toxicity so close to the campus, Diaz-French said. No one could give a definitive answer, so the district decided to keep Schaefer closed for the safety of students and staff.