Santiam Canyon School District on unique road to recovery following the wildfires

On Thursday, sketchbooks and art supplies were handed out to kids in the district. The donation was spearheaded by a retired art teacher in Portland.

MILL CITY, Ore. — School in the Santiam Canyon School District is in session and while things are moving forward, there are still a lot of challenges as the area recovers from wildfires that happened just three months ago.

Even so, there are some positive happenings in the community as well.

About a month ago, we spoke with Marilyn Joyce, a retired art teacher in Portland who saw the wildfire devastation in the Santiam Canyon and started raising money to give students there sketchbooks and art supplies.

On Thursday, the supplies were handed out to kids in the district. More than 500 sketchbooks and art supply kits were donated. Each kid in the district will be able to have one and there will be extras for any kids who may enroll later.

RELATED: Retired art teacher using art to help children, victims of the Santiam Canyon fire

“It’s been really uplifting to see people step up and want to help,” said Todd Miller, Superintendent of the Santiam Canyon School District.

Miller said between distance learning, COVID-19 precautions, and of course wildfire recovery, he has been busy. While slow, there’s been some progress on cleaning up school buildings that suffered smoke damage.

“We have all our buildings now cleaned and ready for staff and students to come back in,” said Miller.

He said last week, some kids did start coming back in person.

“We’re calling them like distance learning hubs. So, they’re not necessarily in classrooms yet for in-classroom learning but we have our elementary gymnasium, our junior/senior high school gymnasiums opened up,” Miller said.

The hubs are in Mill City. The desks are socially distanced, staff is available to help with questions, and of course there’s internet for kids to do their online learning.

“This is prioritized for students who lost homes or are in areas still without adequate utilities or internet connectivity,” said Miller.

There’s also a hub in the Idanha/Detroit area.

“We’re a huge geographic district and they’re further away […] We wanted to take resources up to them,” he said.

Miller said one of the challenges in setting up that particular hub, was that there are still no utilities in the area. But he said a donor set up a full solar battery system to power and heat the temporary building. Miller said there is a registration process and at the Idanha/Detroit hub, they can serve a maximum of 18 kids when accounting for COVID-19 safety precautions.

At the other two locations in Mill City, he anticipates that by next week they could be up to about 25 kids utilizing each gym space.

Miller said he has concerns for kids who aren’t doing well with distance learning. Attendance and engagement continue to be challenging but Miller said the hubs seem to be helping.

Miller said state leaders gave the go-ahead for these types of hubs in fire-affected school districts.

“Our school district, McKenzie School District, and Phoenix-Talent got exemptions to be able to get kids in,” he said.

McKenzie School District is located in Finn Rock, off Highway 126 east of Eugene. That’s the area where the Holiday Farm Fire burned in September. The Phoenix-Talent School District is located in Southern Oregon, where the Almeda Fire broke out

At this point in Santiam Canyon, Miller said recovery has been slow, in part due to bureaucratic red tape. For instance, before property owners can haul debris away, they’ve got to get clearance from government officials to make sure there are no hazardous materials.

“Most of the properties up here are still sitting untouched,” said Miller.

“We’re three months in about and we’re still working on insurance and we’re still working on getting FEMA claims submitted. I mean, it’s very slow.”

He said the process has some people feeling discouraged, but the kindness they see from others within the community and outside of it is helping them get through.