MALDEN, Wash. — On Chloe Place’s first day of school this year, homework came second to thinking about where her family would spend the night.
Malden, WA after wildfire hit the town | PHOTO CREDIT: CHLOE PLACE
When a fire tore through the small town of Malden on Labor Day, the Place home was destroyed. Only about 25 of the town’s 130 homes were left standing.
The fire scattered two dozen students in the Rosalia School District across the region, some working remotely from neighboring towns and a small number meeting in person.
“When [my parents] came back and gave us the news, I immediately felt sick,” said Place, 17. “I couldn’t stand because it just felt like everything inside me broke.”
Rick Linehan, Rosalia School District superintendent, said following Whitman County Public Health guidance, the school district offers in-person classes for preschool through twelfth grade, Linehan said.
A “phase-in model” was in place to have all students back to school in the building, he said. Junior high students began in-person classes the week of Sept. 28 and high school students started the week of Oct. 5.
“It’s almost like a bomb went off and just spared a few houses,” he said. “It’s a pretty big effect for a little school district like ours to lose that many kids.”
The Rosalia School District serves students in Rosalia and the surrounding area, including Malden, Thornton and Plaza.
Place now does her schoolwork on a laptop at the Rosalia High School. A special county health exemption permitted students to use the building for internet and meals if they were impacted by the fire.
“Everyone just wanted to check up on me. I kind of just wanted to go do my own thing and get my schoolwork done,” she said.
Her family has been staying in a travel trailer in Rosalia since the fire, Place said. The school provided a hotspot for internet, but with the number of people staying in the trailer, it’s nearly impossible to complete her work.
The school district will provide counseling and speech therapy to any student who needs it. A psychology specialist also visits once a week from the Association of Educational Service Districts, an educational unit that serves several school districts regionally, Linehan said. In addition to counseling services, the school provides grab-and-go meals.
“[The fire] doesn’t trump COVID but it comes in almost equal to it because we have a real need for the school,” he said.
Fifth-grade teacher Janell Baker said her students were excited to be back in a classroom because they have missed interacting with their friends. Being in-person means the children must wear masks, wash their hands frequently and the desks must be six feet apart.
There are plans to bring in an emotional support dog on Fridays to ease the stress permeating from COVID-19 and the fire. Baker said she takes time to listen and validate each student, every day.
Three of Baker’s students from last year were displaced from the fire, and the teachers are still waiting to hear what the families plan to do for schooling, she said.
“They’re just blooming because they’re together and they’re in school,” she said. “You can’t give them enough information. They just are soaking it up like a sponge.”