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Families, Phoenix-Talent schools consider challenge of schooling after Almeda fire

When Sophia Sandoval finally does sit down in front of her Chromebook to log into her Phoenix High School account for some COVID-style schooling, she may be doing so from Grants Pass. Or possibly Phoenix. Or somewhere else.

The 13-year-old Phoenix High School freshman didn’t have time to think about that Thursday as she took a break from stacking water bottles at the Jackson County Expo, where her and her family were lending a hand during their stay at the emergency shelter. The apartment complex Sandoval called home on Northridge Terrace in south Medford was burned to the ground Tuesday by the Almeda fire, so like many students in the Phoenix-Talent School District she and her family have a housing problem to figure out before she can start to consider the education problem just around the corner.

The Sandovals at least have a temporary place being offered by a friend in Grants Pass, but the long-term goal is to return to the place they still consider home. That end seemed a long way off for dad Mike Sandoval, Sophia and her 15-year-old brother Gabriel on Thursday as the three sat on a picnic table at the Expo, a small group within a much larger group, many surviving on donations.

“We love our home here, we don’t want to go,” said Mike Sandoval, a former fire chief for the U.S. Forest Service. “We want to stay. It’s our home, where all of our friends are and the kids’ schools. We belong here.”

School for the Sandovals and other Phoenix-Talent School District students was already going to be a unique challenge, with remote learning being ushered in as at least a short-term solution to the schooling-during-COVID-19 problem. But now, after the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimated the Almeda fire burned 600 houses and 100 businesses in Ashland, Talent and Phoenix, remote learning may have an entirely different meaning whenever school does return there.

The one bit of good news came as a surprise to many. All six schools in the district — Phoenix High School, Talent Middle School, Phoenix Elementary, Talent Elementary, Orchard Hill Elementary and ATI Charter School — survived the fire.

The district announced shortly after the carnage became apparent Wednesday that school was canceled until Monday. On Thursday night, superintendent Brent Barry sent a text to local media announcing that school would not return next week and that “more information will be sent to families when we will start comprehensive distant learning.”

Speaking of the district’s long-term plan Thursday from its makeshift headquarters at Orchard Hill Elementary, Barry said it’s too early to work out the logistics of school because the situation is still in flux. As of Thursday night, much of Phoenix and Talent was still without power, and emergency crews were advising everybody — those who lost homes and those who didn’t — to stay away.

“We are in disaster relief right now for our families,” Barry said. “We know some families lost absolutely everything, so we’re going to communicate with our families and our staff and our students. We’ll send a message out [today]. Right now, that’s kind of the furthest thing from our mind. We want to make sure people have their immediate needs met, shelter, a place to stay, they’re safe. And then working on resources for families.”

Phoenix High teacher Carolena Campbell echoed that sentiment. Campbell’s own home just below Rogue Valley Manor was spared, but her family had a bird’s eye view of the destruction before evacuating and watching the scene unfold via the manor’s webcam. Campbell, who teaches a class called “emergency care and prevention,” said she knows of two fellow PHS teachers, two more that teach at North Medford High School and about 10 students who have all lost homes.

Robin Akpan, a former volleyball coach at both Ashland High and Phoenix High, filmed her family’s desperate attempt to save their house and family business, an organic wheat grass company, with a garden hose and shared via Facebook Live. A GoFundMe page dedicated to the Akpans had raised $39,555 of its $40,000 goal as of 7 a.m. Friday.

Many more students and teachers suffered similarly excruciating losses, Campbell said, which is why she used her mom’s $1,000 seed donation to kickstart a fundraiser and supply giveaway that set up shop at Orchard Hill Elementary Thursday (those interested in donating or grabbing supplies can visit Campbell’s “phoenix high school emergency care & prevention” Facebook page for more information).

Campbell was busy directing people, including a colleague who’s now homeless, at Orchard Hill, which was bustling with activity despite the stifling heat and heavy smoke.

“I know that we had a huge amount of our students living in the mobile home parks and those are completely gone,” she said. “When the numbers come out it’s going to be devastating how many of our students have been displaced. I can’t even begin to put numbers on it.”

How and when can students return to school, and what will that look like? Campbell said it’s way too early to say.

“I don’t even know how to answer that,” she said. “I feel like at this point, we were already as a staff very focused — just because of COVID — on the well-being of our kids and being there for them emotionally in other ways than just curriculum and education. So I feel like that more than ever.

“Education’s important and curriculum’s important, but these kids have nothing now, a lot of them. I feel like a lot of what school’s going to be now is being a support system for these kids and helping them through.”

Kids like Cassandra Ramirez’s three — Nicolas, 8; Elise, 7; and Samantha, 5 — whose terrifying ordeal Tuesday began when a police officer pulled up beside them as they gawked at the approaching flames near their home in Talent and yelled, “What are you doing here? You need to get out of here. Now!”

Ramirez grabbed her purse, loaded the kids into her Ford Expedition and headed north. The flames alongside the road warmed up the inside of her car, right through the full-blast air conditioning. Every motel was booked, which is how they ended up at the Expo a little after midnight. They slept in the Expedition that night, and found out Wednesday from their landlord that their place had been destroyed.

A stay-at-home mom, Ramirez was already a little apprehensive about helping three youngsters work out the kinks of remote learning. Now?

“I don’t know how I’m going to do that,” she said. “No, because we have to have internet access. Even if they give you Chromebooks, well, one, how am I going to get a Chromebook? If I can’t access Talent, how am I going to drive to Talent to get the Chromebook? And then, where am I going to get internet access to have my three kiddos do school work? And how am I going to find a good environment to help them be studious in? So I’m just not really sure how that’s going to work.”

This story has been updated to reflect that Robin Akpan is a former Phoenix High and Ashland High volleyball coach but doesn't teach at PHS.

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Donations are available to those effected by recent wildfires at Orchard Hill Elementary in Medford.