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Students In Southern Oregon Show Signs Of Stress After Catastrophic Wildfire


Hundreds of kids in southern Oregon lost their homes to a catastrophic wildfire in September, just a week before school was supposed to start. Now some students are showing signs of extreme stress and anxiety, causing school leaders and parents to consider resuming in-person classes. Jefferson Public Radio's April Ehrlich has the story.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (As character) It's letter time. Let's sing the alphabet song.

COURTNEY BUCOLO: Abby, I think you're all brushed down, OK?

APRIL EHRLICH, BYLINE: It's another busy morning in the Bucolo home, which right now is actually a bed and breakfast that they've been living in since a wildfire destroyed their house in Talent, Ore. Courtney Bucolo is getting her two kids, Abby and Henry, ready for the day.


BUCOLO: All right, eat quick, sweetie, because you have to do a little bit of schoolwork before you leave, OK?


BUCOLO: Just a little bit.

ABBY: I don't want to.

EHRLICH: Abby is 5 - well, 5 1/2 - and she just started kindergarten.

Do you have friends in school?

ABBY: I don't know them yet.

EHRLICH: She says she doesn't know them yet because she's only ever seen them on a computer screen. Abby speaks softly, so she seems shy at first. But Courtney said her daughter wasn't always like this. Abby's medicated for anxiety and has been since an incident shortly after the fire.

BUCOLO: She was complaining about a stomach ache, but she just - it kept escalating to the point where she was screaming and doubling over every couple of minutes.

EHRLICH: Courtney and her husband took Abby to the hospital, where she seemed to go catatonic. She curled into a fetal position, didn't talk to anyone and hardly answered nurse's questions. At one point, Abby started screaming again and passed out. But doctors said all of her tests came out clear.

BUCOLO: And then they were like, we think it's a panic attack.

EHRLICH: Courtney says Abby started having mild panic attacks after the onset of the pandemic. They got worse after the Almeda Fire, which destroyed 2,400 homes in the towns of Talent and Phoenix. Abby has always taken refuge in building up her nest. She had her family of stuffies, and they all had names, and she played with the same friends she's known since birth.

BUCOLO: Then it was like, one day, we took her away, and she never saw them again. And her structure was gone and her everything - her little world was gone.

EHRLICH: Abby is one of 700 students in the Talent-Phoenix school district who lost their homes to the fire. Some are now living in hotels or relative's houses, and some are even living in tents. Like Abby, a lot of them are having a hard time dealing with these sudden changes. Their lives have been upended twice in one year - first, the pandemic, then the wildfire.

SHAWNA SCHLEIF: That lack of stability and that lack of predictability can be really harmful.

EHRLICH: Phoenix Elementary School principal Shawna Schleif says that's part of why the district wants to return to in-person learning this winter - for a sense of normalcy.

SCHLEIF: So if we can mitigate that by bringing kids back on campus to create space for kids to be and be in relation with one another and give families, you know, a reprieve to take care of all of the things that they need to take care of, we want to be able to do that.

EHRLICH: But if students come back to school this year, it's not going to be normal. It'll likely be a hybrid model with some students coming to campus during different parts of the day, all while wearing face masks.

MELISSA BRYMER: There's going to be a worry for their own safety as well as their family's safety.

EHRLICH: Melissa Brymer is a program director with the UCLA-Duke National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

BRYMER: If we're pushing something that others are saying may not be safe. They're going to be attuned to that.

EHRLICH: Back at the bed and breakfast, Courtney Bucolo watches Abby finish her schoolwork online. She and her husband hope Abby can go back to school soon in person because Abby isn't connecting with other students.

BUCOLO: I think she needs it. It's the worst decision to make. Like, we know that the virus is real, and we know that it's a problem. And we assume that if they go back to in-person learning, there will be an increase in cases, and we'll probably have to stop seeing my grandparents. It's a rock and a hard place. They're both crappy decisions.

EHRLICH: But with coronavirus cases skyrocketing in this region, it's unlikely Abby will have the opportunity to meet her kindergarten classmates in person at all.

For NPR News, I'm April Ehrlich in Talent, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

April Ehrlich began freelancing for Jefferson Public Radio in the fall of 2016, and then officially joined the team as its Morning Edition Host and a Jefferson Exchange producer in August 2017.