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Students in the Santiam Canyon reflect on pandemic, wildfires on last day of school

“I don’t think there’s anything you could ever do to prepare for what we had coming this school year,” said Todd Miller, superintendent of the Santiam Canyon School.

MILL CITY, Ore. — Thursday was the last day of school for kids in the Santiam Canyon School District. For many people, it’s been a tough a year due to the pandemic. But last September’s wildfire made an already difficult situation that much harder on kids and families in the Santiam Canyon.

Hope Schenk is a sophomore at Santiam Junior/Senior High School.

“The first semester it was hard because we were on distance learning and personally I just do best learning in person and adjusting was hard,” said Schenk.

Adjusting was even tougher with people dealing with the fallout from the fires.

“Just days before our first day of school is when the wildfires hit our area,” said Todd Miller, superintendent of the Santiam Canyon School District.

“I don’t think there’s anything you could ever do to prepare for what we had coming this school year,” he said.

The wildfire burned many homes and displaced families.

“A lot of people lost everything," said Ken Allison, a school counselor in the district. "Kids were all over the place, some down in Arizona, many at the coast, down in the valley."

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Miller said the district initially lost about 80 students from the canyon because they’d been dispersed elsewhere. In such a small district, 80 is a substantial loss. The district has since been able to get some of those students back, but one concern has been around funding.

School districts in Oregon get money for each student enrolled. If fewer students are enrolled, that means fewer dollars and fewer staff members to fund school programs. 

Miller said he’s hopeful the legislature passes a bill that supports enrollment in wildfire-affected communities. 

“The last thing our communities need right now is for our schools to take a hit financially,” said Miller.

Driving through the canyon, it’s impossible to not be reminded of what happened. Burned or cut down trees are everywhere.  

“As far as the trauma goes, I think it’s been pretty significant,” said Allison.

He said kids continue to show signs of trauma in different ways and at different times.

“Seeing it through behaviors, seeing it through different fears that they talk about and discuss. Even my own daughter has been talking about it off and on. She asks my wife or I, “Is the fire going to come back,” Allison said.

He said in the beginning, families were reaching out to get help with food, clothing, and other items. Now, Allison said a big issue is the shortage of housing that’s available in the Santiam Canyon.

RELATED: Getting a first-hand look at burned trails closed in the Santiam State Forest

For the Peterson family, the last year has been a trial. Recently they’ve been busy rebuilding their home that burned down.

“The last year’s been pretty crazy. A lot of ups and downs with the fires on Labor Day, and COVID, and remote school, the ice storm that came,” said Kris Peterson.

For their eight-year-old son Kase, the fire was scary, but he’s glad he at least got to go back to school. He said the best thing about this past year was being allowed to go back to school in person.

Kase’s mom, Brenda Peterson, said all the change has been hard on her kids, especially one of her daughters.

That change is hard on a lot of kids, especially with fire season approaching again and all the rebuilding that’s happening in the canyon.

“Some kids are having a hard time going up to the home site because it triggers some things,” said Allison.

“For me, something will happen or I’ll see something in the distance that kind of looks like fire and it’s still kind of triggering,” said Schenk.

“My heart kind of stops for a second and I go right into that panic like I was that night,” she said.

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Schenk still remembers that night clearly, when she and her mom left while her dad stayed behind to try to make sure their home didn’t burn and help neighbors protect their homes.

“I was just scared he wouldn’t come back,” recalled Schenk. But he made it out and so did their home.

After such a difficult year, Miller said it seems everyone just wants the year to come to an end.

“It’s like the end of a year like I’ve never seen. I think it’s been so emotionally draining for everyone. Our kids, our families, our staff, I’ve never seen it like this,” said Miller.

But he’s excited about next fall when school starts up again.

“Just to get back to that sense of normalcy,” he said.

Since September, so many people from the local area and outside of it have pitched in to help. Hope and her community are thankful for the help they’ve received and hopeful for the future.

“It’s brought out the best in the community,” said Miller.

“It was a reminder to be more compassionate to one another... we’re going to come together and we’re going to get through it together,” Allison said.

“I’m so happy to be part of such a strong community, a strong school, all the staff, teachers, parents, just seeing after the devastation how everyone worked together. I was just very proud I guess and happy to be part of it,” said Schenk.

RELATED: Some Oregon wildfire survivors rebuilding homes

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