Even as his children joined in Tuesday’s bustling celebration for the reopening of Schaefer School, Steven Lee was thinking about the student-teacher connections he has witnessed in Coffey Park since the flames of October.
Last month Lee took his twin 7-year-olds, Aaron and Amanda, to help volunteers put up donated Christmas trees on neighborhood lots burned by fire in the northwest Santa Rosa neighborhood. That night the twins got to thinking about Megan Furze, a Schaefer first-grade teacher whose family home also had burned in Coffey Park.
“What about Ms. Furze?” they asked. Lee and the children placed and decorated a Christmas tree at the teacher’s home site, then texted her a photo.
For Lee and others, the growing bonds between students and teachers made Tuesday’s celebration all the sweeter.
The school reopening certainly was eye-catching, with phalanxes of police and firefighters, plus donuts, cocoa and hundreds of teddy bears. The children had their pictures taken while inspecting firetrucks and other emergency vehicles.
Parents like Lee expressed gratitude for the community support. But they also told of the caring they’d witnessed between pupils and educators.
When schools in October remained closed by the fires, Furze, herself a Schaefer alum, and fellow teacher Amy Gregorio hosted a joint play day for their students at a nearby park.
One of Furze’s first-grade students, Vincent Colombo, also lost his home in the fire. When his mom, Vanessa Colombo, told the boy that he and other children could get a new donated bicycle for the ones they had lost, Vincent recalled that his teacher also had lost a bicycle.
“Is Ms. Furze going to get a bike?” he asked. His mother explained the bicycles were just for children.
On the last day before winter break, Furze took Vanessa Colombo aside to pass on several donated gifts she had been able to acquire for Vincent. One gift, a Smithsonian animated remote control dinosaur that walks and roars, replaced one destroyed in the fire.
Schaefer School sits across Coffey Lane from cleaned home sites adorned with straw rope wattles and barriers of yellow caution tape.
Exactly three months before, in the early hours of Oct. 9, the Tubbs fire descended on Coffey Park from the hills east of Highway 101. The inferno sent families fleeing for their lives and leveled more than 1,300 homes in a compact collection of residential subdivisions.
The month before the fire, 429 students attended Schaefer. On Tuesday administrators expected 385, a decline of 10 percent.
In the fire, Schaefer School suffered smoke damage but remained intact. Administrators kept the school closed for over two months because of uncertainty about air quality in Coffey Park from the nearby toxic debris cleanup at the burned home sites. As a result, Schaefer students and teachers were split among three other campuses in the Piner-Olivet school district.
Last month air monitoring tests showed it was safe to reopen Schaefer. School administrators looked forward to once more having staff and students together on one campus.
But the first day back after winter break was anything but a normal day.
The Schaefer playground was filled with fire engines, police cars, motorcycles and at least one Army National Guard Hummer, into which some students were allowed to climb for pictures while wearing a combat helmet. Out front, students petted a calm alpaca named O’Malley, a therapy animal. The children also exchanged greetings with a life-size costumed bear character from the state Office of Emergency Services.