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Children whose homes burned down in wildfires struggle to return to online schooling

The Pearl Hill fires burned down several homes in Bridgeport, seen Sept. 10. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
The Pearl Hill fires burned down several homes in Bridgeport, seen Sept. 10. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

Monserrat Gildo and her 11-year-old sister Citally were already grappling with a rocky start to the school year: Bridgeport, like most other districts in Washington, began the school year online.

Then came the Pearl Hill wildfire.

Police slipped warning letters under doors and told people to leave. On Labor Day, 15-year-old Monserrat and her family evacuated as fire tore through the Douglas County town, turning homes, barns and cars to ash. But for a few items, “everything my parents worked for was lost,” said Monserrat, who goes by Monse. “Everything just got burned down.”

Suddenly children here are reeling from two crises: a world upended by a global pandemic and housing insecurity in the wake of environmental disaster. After the fire cleared, most Bridgeport residents were without water, electricity or internet for at least a week. Smoke hung over the fields. And school abruptly stopped —many couldn’t log online. Virtual learning only just restarted this week, the district’s superintendent Scott Sattler said. 

“It was so devastating that people needed, at least that initial week, to wrap their heads around what happened,” said Sattler, noting that online attendance has now mostly returned to normal. “With COVID-19 and the fires, [students] really want to be back at school.”

The fires didn’t reach school buildings. But they did burn down a district-owned barn on the edge of town where, in non-pandemic times, students raised farm animals to learn skills and compete in county fairs. No animals were in the building when it burned, Sattler said.

At least three Bridgeport families with school children, including Monse’s, lost their homes, Sattler said. For now, Monse and her family are staying with her elder sister Elizabeth Gildo and raising money through GoFundMe. Another family whose home burned down sent their children to live with their older sister Anai Palacios Isidra in Spokane; the children’s parents, who speak Spanish, have struggled to help the children during school closures.

“I had to bring my siblings with me because my parents are unable to help them navigate a laptop on top of everything being [taught] in English,” Palacios Isidra said. 

A handful of other nearby districts affected by fires, such as Methow Valley Schools in Winthrop, delayed the start of the school year. Some children in Bridgeport are still struggling to get online, though the district has provided internet hot spots to some families. As far as Sattler knows, most who lost their school laptops to the fires have sought out and received a replacement. 

This week, Monse said her little sister was still without one. The pair took turns using Monse’s computer to log into Zoom lessons while their parents picked apples in nearby orchards during the day.

By Wednesday, a school district official called to help Citally check out a replacement. 

Elizabeth said, “At least now they can both be on track.”

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