Student Well-Being

A New Layer of Trauma for the Nation’s Children: Dangerous Wildfires

By Catherine Gewertz — September 15, 2020 6 min read
The San Francisco skyline in the distance behind Crissy Field is barely visible due to smoke from wildfires Sept. 9.
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The coronavirus has shattered the familiar routines of life and school for students and teachers across the country, and subjected millions to the stresses of illness, lost jobs, and isolation. But in 10 Western states, thousands of children and the adults who educate them are reeling from yet another layer of trauma: wildfires.

In some districts, children who’d been chomping at the bit to see their friends at school have been told they’ll be stuck at home learning on a computer, for the time being. In some places, schools have shut down entirely, unable to manage remote instruction or distribute grab-and-go meals. In the worst cases, families have had to flee as flames drew too near for comfort. Some have returned to intact homes; others only to ash and scattered belongings. Still others are living with question marks, unable to return home.

Added to the pandemic’s already derailed sense of normalcy, these new fire-driven disruptions have experts worried about how much stress children can handle.

“When it comes to trauma, the old saying, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ isn’t true,” said Robin Gurwitch, a professor of psychology at Duke University who studies the effect of trauma on children. “It’s a cumulative impact.” The more trauma people experience, “the more at-risk they are for health and mental impacts.”

Laurie Combe, the president of the National Association of School Nurses, said her members in wildfire-affected areas are reaching out to families to check on their health and safety, but also to connect them with emotional support. “We’re really concerned about the multiplying effects” of COVID-19 and the wildfires, she said.

Shifting School Plans

A huge swath of the country is contending with wildfires that could affect school plans. As of Monday night, 87 large fires have chewed through 4.7 million acres in 10 states, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. More than 30 people have died, and entire towns have been decimated. In California, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado, evacuation orders have driven families from their homes.

The effects of the fires are light in many regions, with only a pale gray haze in the air. But in others, that haze has thickened and grown yellow or orange, sending air-quality meters into unhealthy or hazardous territory.

One child lassoes another at an evacuation center in Canby, Ore. The two children are staying in RVs with their families after leaving their homes due to the fire danger.

Federal air-quality ratings range from 0 to 500, with any rating over 150 “unhealthy” or worse. The air-quality rating in Spokane, Wash., near several large fires, hit 499 on Sunday, and the school district, which planned to offer families remote and in-person options, pivoted to all-remote instruction on Monday. News sites in Oregon post running lists of schools closing or shifting to remote instruction because of poor air quality or other hazardous fire-related conditions. Even some schools that reopened for in-person instruction decided to restrict children to indoor-only activities, a difficult decision when COVID-19 safety measures emphasize outdoor gathering and good ventilation.

Liz Pray, a school nurse in Moses Lake, Wash., 175 miles east of Seattle, said poor air quality led her district to switch from a hybrid model to all-remote learning on Monday, after only three days of instruction. But she’s worried about how she and her colleagues will balance COVID-19 and wildfire-related health issues when schools bring students back to campus.

“A lot of our return-to-school plan depends on open windows, going outside for breaks,” said Pray, who described the gray sky outside her office window as “apocalyptic” even though the closest fire is 100 miles away. The air-quality rating there was 300. “We’re going to have to decide which is the lesser of two evils: wildfire smoke or the risk of COVID exposure.”

Pollution from wildfires is risky for children with asthma and other respiratory ailments and allergies, and those with cardiovascular problems, experts said. The American Academy of Pediatrics has warned that children are more susceptible than adults to lung damage from wildfires’ smoky air because their lungs are still developing and their airways are narrower.

Triggers for Many Children

The effects of the wildfires will touch far more children than those who must flee their homes, experts said. Even if they live far from one of the fires, hearing their parents or teachers talk about the fires, or seeing images of charred homes online can upset children, experts said. That’s especially true for children who have experienced other wildfires, or pandemic-related traumas such as losing a loved one or having to move. “Disasters mean there will be triggers,” Gurwitch, the psychology professor, said.

That means parents and teachers can anticipate a range of responses in children, from temper tantrums and clinginess in the youngest to irritability and concentration problems in older children, she said. And teachers will have to adjust their expectations, recognizing that students will not be able to absorb lessons and assignments the way they usually do.

Melissa Brymer, who studies child trauma as the director of terrorism and disaster programs at the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, a joint project of Duke University and the University of California-Los Angeles, said it’s important for teachers and parents to hold conversations with children to acknowledge their worries and correct any misinformation they might have. Adults can reassure children by describing the plans they’ve developed to keep them safe. She also suggested that adults help children feel more hopeful by doing something positive, such as writing notes of thanks to firefighters or donating canned food to evacuated families.

Canceled Instruction

In districts hard-hit by wildfires, those kinds of considerations are a long way off. Brent Barry, the superintendent of the 2,500-student Phoenix-Talent school district, 15 miles south of Medford, Ore., said half of the families he serves and 10 percent of his staff members have lost their homes to a fire that ripped through 3,200 acres starting Sept. 8, the day before his schools were set to reopen. His school buildings, thankfully, were spared, but most are without water and electricity, so they can’t provide remote instruction, Barry said. Nonetheless, the district managed to set up several meal-service sites, including one in a local Home Depot parking lot.

“Our role right now is just to meet our families’ basic needs,” he said.

Three hundred miles to the north, where a fire has charred 187,000 acres so far, Oregon’s Santiam Canyon schools had been set to begin Sept. 10, even as the fire burned at a safe distance. But the winds changed that, and the blaze roared down local streets, forcing families to flee in the middle of the night. Many have lost their homes.

“It’s traumatizing, the magnitude of what’s happened in the blink of an eye,” Todd Miller, the district’s superintendent, said on a phone call from the cab of his white Dodge Ram pickup truck. As he drives the streets, sizing up the damage, he’s got a chainsaw in the back, “just in case” a charred tree falls and blocks his way. He was relieved to find all three of his schools—a K-5, a 6-12, and a brand-new middle and high school—thick with smoke inside, but otherwise undamaged.

He’s not sure when he can reopen his schools, even for remote instruction. Right now, his focus is on his students and their families. Some are still fighting to save their homes or searching for lost loved ones. Others will return to homes without power or water, or too smoke-choked to live in.

“I’m just extremely concerned about my students’ mental health,” Miller said. “The COVID crisis alone, that isolation and lack of structure, the problems kids faced with abuse or [getting] food, were already huge challenges. And now we’ve got most of our kids with this new traumatic event. It’s a hard thing to say as a superintendent, but I told my families, right now school is the least of your worries.”

Education Week librarian and data specialist Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed research for this story.

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