Students return to Sierra Unified schools after Creek Fire, COVID closures, and power shutoffs

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Just one month ago, Foothill Elementary in Prather served as a check-in site for families waiting to see the remnants of their burned homes after the Creek Fire tore through nearby communities.

But now it's once again filled with students who are back to in-person learning for the first time since the pandemic forced schools across the state to close.

Sierra Unified also welcomed students back to its high school in Tollhouse, which was used as an incident command center during the fire, as well as the junior high next door.

All three campuses were supposed to re-open Monday, but a PG&E public safety power shut off in the area kept them closed for two additional days.

Superintendent Alan Harris says, "We're excited to have the students back, and it's gotten off to a smooth start."

Harris says the return to classrooms is a welcome part of the recovery process for this community. About 30 students lost their homes in the fire, along with several staff members, and at one point 80 percent of the families were displaced.

Harris says, "The chance to come and be together and be in each other's presence, the sense of belonging and significance that comes with that really enhances the learning and creates not only the connection to the learning, but also a healing after being through that struggle."

Harris says it was best to bring all three schools back at the same time because of bussing across the expansive rural area the district covers. He adds there is plenty of space for social distancing thanks to large campuses and a small enrollment of around 1250 students.

"We're using our face coverings and all those procedures in place, but most importantly a group of employees who really wanted the chance to see the students."

About 80 percent of families have chosen the in-person option, including Diane Kneeland who is the busy working mother of one 8th grader and one 10th grader.

Kneeland says, "They're super excited and they've decided they love teachers, and I do too so I couldn't be more thrilled. I've never looked forward to making a lunch as much as I did today.

Kneeland says the schools have been supportive throughout all of the challenges in recent months, and the entire community continues to show the true meaning of "mountain strong."
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