Technology puts students back in class after Camp Fire

Dec. 7, 2018

What are students to when their school burns down?

Thousands of them were thrust into that situation in November when the Camp Fire—the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California recorded history—destroyed or damaged more than a dozen schools in Butte County.

That destruction was just part of the fire’s wake. Burning more than 153,000 acres of northern California and taking 17 days to be brought under 100% containment, the Camp Fire claimed the lives of 85 civilians as of Dec. 6, at which time the number of missing people was six.

Along with destroying nearly 19,000 structures and causing an insured damage estimated between $9 and $13 billion, the Camp Fire forced the evacuation of eight communities and threatened another seven. In that, many schools and colleges in the region were either partially or completely destroyed, or closed due to smoke. The town of Paradise—with a population of about 27,000—was largely destroyed in the fire’s first day, with five public schools consumed by it and eight of nine schools overall.

This week, many of the schools in Butte County reopened for the first time since the fire forced their closure, and students were back in class. The Chico Enterprise-Record reported Monday that 14 schools in the county were damaged or destroyed, with all 99 schools in the county closed during the fire—keeping 31,670 students out of classrooms until Monday, when 28,032 of them returned to class.

The schools that were destroyed didn’t have that option. But thanks to technology, many of those students who lost their school were still back in class this week—just in a different format.

Paradise High School students picked up new laptops on Monday at a makeshift school hub 12 miles away inside the Chico Mall, a location they can now use to meet with teachers and friends. Their new high school will be entirely online, using those laptops to register for online learning programs that will let them continue class from wherever they’re now staying. Many of those kids are still living with other family members, friends, or at hotels.

The Riverside School District in southern California donated 2,000 Chromebook laptops to Paradise, which students were able to pick up after checking in and updating their contact information.

See this local news report for an overview of how those Paradise High School students will carry out their school year on those Chromebooks.

This is a great example of the power technology has in helping communities return to some semblance of normalcy after a natural disaster. Online classrooms have existed for at least 20 years, but much of its early growth was at the university level. It’s only in the past decade that the advent of K-12 online education has seen dramatic growth. A report from the National Center for Education Statistics showed that for the 2015-2016 school year, 57.5% of U.S. high schools offered courses that were entirely online, while about 7% of high schools were primarily online.

I couldn’t find more recent stats than that, but the fact that students impacted by disasters like those in Paradise have the ability to continue their school year with a laptop is tremendous. I have no idea what that school district would have done 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago.

It’s been well-documented that the number of natural disasters such as devastating wildfires and hurricanes has continued to increase due to the impacts of climate change, and it’s likely to continue. That means more schools may be at risk of suddenly being damaged and unusable, but at least it’s comforting knowing that there will be a good option to minimize the education disruption in situations like these. Not that it’s an easy solution, by any means. Figuring out how to translate an in-person curriculum to one entirely online in about three weeks like Paradise did is remarkable. But at least now we know it’s possible.

Here’s to technology. While it may continue to make humanity less ‘sociable’ in many ways, it makes up for it by connecting us in other ways when we need it most.

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