School is back in session in Boulder County. Students affected by the Marshall Fire say that’s not what they need

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Paolo Zialcita/CPR News
Many Boulder high school students are frustrated that classes are resuming so soon after the Marshall fire. Among them are (from L-R) Emma Hecht, sophomore in Centaurus High School; Jaden Crawley, sophomore in Centaurus High School; and Julia Crawley, senior in Monarch High School.

Julia and Jaden Crawley were home alone when the Marshall Fire reached their house in the Sagamore subdivision in Superior last week. Today that neighborhood no longer exists. 

Around noon on Dec. 30, Julia, who’s 18, got a text from her friend warning her about a fire. Then Jaden saw the house across the street light up. 

“I grabbed my sister's arm. I grabbed our dogs. I threw them into the car. We didn’t grab anything else. We were still in our pajamas,” Jaden said. 

The two high schoolers narrowly escaped. Julia drove them through black smoke and ash to get out of the neighborhood. 

“We couldn't see,” she said. “As I was driving, I almost crashed the car. We couldn't breathe. We were choking on the smoke. It was so thick. There was ash all over our faces.”

Their mom, who’d been out of town, flew back to Colorado immediately, and they’ve been bouncing from hotel to hotel in the week since. The sisters have been trying to help their mom fill out FEMA assistance applications and talk to insurance providers. 

Meanwhile, today, school started for the spring semester. The sisters said they can’t handle it right now, since they only escaped with the clothes on their backs.

“I didn't even have a mask for school until two days ago. We’re still homeless,” Jaden, a sophomore at Centaurus High School in Lafayette, said. 

So far, the Boulder Valley School District has been adamant that school will continue as planned, even in Louisville and Superior. Monarch High School, where Julia is a senior, was barely spared by the fire, but crews had to remove debris from the campus and purify the air inside buildings.

District leadership has been adamant that the schools should open precisely because of the fire  — not in spite of it. Chief communications officer Randy Barber said kids need a safe, stable place with meals, and that parents need them to have that, too.

“Our main focus is not academics,” Barber said in an interview. “It is doing everything possible to wrap our arms around our kids to provide them the things that they need to support them in this difficult time.”

Barber said absences will be excused and grades will be an afterthought, but he did not specify how long the more relaxed rules would be in place. 

Some students said that’s not enough. Kai Nelson, a freshman at Monarch, and Emma Hecht, a sophomore at Centaurus, worked to spread a petition asking the district to postpone the start of the semester, or to start remotely. It has thousands of signatures.

“We're just asking them to understand that this is not something that you can recover from within five days,” Hecht said. “It has been five of days since people have watched their houses burned down in front of them and they can't expect us to go back to school and act like everything's normal.”

The Crawley sisters in Superior aren’t going to class yet — and they don’t know when they’ll be ready. Despite not being able to stop school from starting, Hecht hopes the district will find ways to support students through the semester.