July 17, 2024

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Planada Elementary school community adjusts after flood damage

7 min read
Planada Elementary school community adjusts after flood damage

Robert Fisher-Yarbrough’s daughter gets nervous when it rains.

Major storms in early January flooded the streets of Planada, forcing evacuations and closures throughout the small community in rural Merced County.

Now, the sounds of heavy rain pounding the roof causes anxiety.

“It was pretty impactful,” Fisher-Yarbrough said. “It started raining (the other day), and she got really scared.”

Fisher-Yarbrough’s family didn’t return home for more than week, until Planada Elementary School reopened. With so many families displaced, the school’s reopening was crucial for the community.

It reopened despite heavy damage that’s rendered much of the school unsafe. The 800-plus-student school was the hardest hit in Merced County as water penetrated most of the campus, which was built below the floodline in the 1950s.

A month after the waters receded , belongings are seen piled in front of many homes en route to Planada Elementary, “a home away from home” to its staff and students, especially now that many kids are displaced from their own home or living with relatives.

“They have came to school talking about their experience, what has happened, what they have seen during the flooding,” first grade dual immersion teacher Karina Pacheco said. “They’ve lost items in their home as well as their homes.”

Students share those stories of fear, trauma and loss with their teachers, many of whom are also coping with their own grief and trauma.

“We have several staff members who were impacted personally,” Planada Elementary Principal Erica Villalobos said. “Their home flooded. They lost everything they had. If it didn’t affect them, they have a parent, grandparent or family member (impacted).

“Dealing with a personal loss as well, it has been a challenge for a lot of them.”

At least two more months of split schedules, shared spaces

Yellow-and-black caution tape blocks the west side of Planada Elementary where the school’s office, library and most classrooms are.

About 90{e4f787673fbda589a16c4acddca5ba6fa1cbf0bc0eb53f36e5f8309f6ee846cf} of the school was damaged in the early January flooding that overtook the rural town.

Ever since students returned, there’s been a lot of changes.

Only K-2 grade students and teachers remain on campus as they share the cafeteria and around a half dozen untouched classrooms — newer classes added on over the years above the floodline in contrast to the rest of the school built in 1955.

The classrooms left dry from the flood are currently the rooms for all students.

The cafeteria is now a shared space for three classes at a time. Atop the cafeteria stage is the makeshift library.

The 3-5 grade Planada students are bused to Cesar Chavez Middle School about four minutes away as they utilize the space provided for them.

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The teacher lounge area now serves as the office at Planada Elementary School in Planada, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. Many classrooms and buildings at the school as well as homes and businesses throughout the community were damaged by January flooding which forced thousands to evacuate the town. Andrew Kuhn [email protected]

No matter if students are at their “home” of Planada or temporarily at the middle school, they’re facing challenges, Villalobos said.

“Instruction looks different,” she said. “We are striving to meet those academic minutes but the only time they have in a (classroom) space is three hours (in comparison to) the full six hours they would’ve been in the classroom.”

Six hours is split between the usable classrooms and other activities. Students receive three hours of instruction in a classroom. For the remaining three hours, students are in the divided spaces of the cafeteria, engaged in instruction through physical education, “library” time, online learning and “everything we could find to fill that time (not) in the classroom,” Villalobos explained.

The students using the middle school follow the same model.

The changes for those students are more difficult, she said. Younger students are clustered into classrooms designed for older students and there is no playground, though staff takes items for them to play with.

“The changing environment. The classroom setting. Their materials and their books being wheeled around for them,” Villalobos noted. “It’s more challenging for those students.”

With the student body divided between schools, staff is splitting time between campuses.

At 12:30 on Wednesday, Villalobos came onto the Planada campus after being at the middle school. She tagged the vice principal, who then headed to the middle school — something they do at least once a day.

“We try to be at both schools everyday so kids can see us, and we don’t become strangers to a whole chunk of students,” she said.

Other staff, such as the nurse clerks and secretaries, are doing two-week rotations between the campuses.

Regardless of location, the current situation affects learning for all of them, from missing nearly two weeks because of flooding to having a “minimized daily schedule” until they have their space back.

“There’s going to be some academic loss,” Villalobos said.

Crews work to repair a building damaged by flooding at Planada Elementary School in Planada, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. Many classrooms and buildings at the school as well as homes and businesses throughout the community were damaged by January flooding which forced thousands to evacuate the town. Andrew Kuhn [email protected]

With the damaged areas already demolished for construction, repairs are expected to take about two more months for the walls and flooring to be implemented to bring some students back, Villalobos said.

As classrooms become available, the principal and superintendent discussed, the school will phase in more grade levels of students. For example, by March, Superintendent José González expects the special education students and fourth-graders to be back on the Planada campus. All students should be back by the end of the school year.

Losing everything: ‘It makes us feel homeless,’ limits teaching

Planada’s severe flooding is the result of Miles Creek breaching its banks near the community.

While it’s hardly the first time the decades-old school has flooded, staff said January’s disaster was the worst in recent memory. Water damaged 27 rooms in the school, including most classrooms as well as the library and administration office.

“Bookcases, books, chairs, anything we had — we’ve lost,” Pacheco said.

They also lost class libraries, reading carpets, decor, recently purchased tablets and other instructional materials as well as items that created “special learning centers in our classrooms,” Villalobos added.

“Some teachers have occupied those spaces as their home away from home for 15 to 20 years,” González said.

Teaching is “limited,” Pacheco said about she and her colleagues doing “whatever we can with what we have.”

“It makes us feel homeless,” Pacheco said. “One way or another, we make it work.”

From the librarian turning the stage into a library to educators hanging age-specific learning charts or flyers around the cafeteria to administrators transforming the staff lounge into office space, the Planada staff wanted things to be as normal as possible amid the drastic changes, librarian Maribel Ceja said.

“We wanted to create a safe place for them – somewhere they could feel comfortable coming to, somewhere they recognized,” Villalobos said. “This is home for them.”

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Planada Elementary School in Planada, Calif., on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023. Many classrooms and buildings at the school as well as homes and businesses throughout the community were damaged by January flooding which forced thousands to evacuate the town. Andrew Kuhn [email protected]

Moving forward: new classrooms mean starting over

With learning materials lost in the flooding, Planada educators must soon prepare to restock and recreate students’ learning environments once construction is complete.

Educators learned Thursday at the school board meeting that the district’s insurance would be covering some items, but every year, teachers come out of their own pockets to supply their classrooms with the things their students need and things to enhance the teaching and learning environment.

Curtis Earheart, an agent with Horace Mann Educators Corporation in Merced and Madera counties, is coordinating a fundraising effort for them through crowdfunding platform DonorsChoose.

More than 20 educators plan to participate by sharing their story, including discussing the classroom materials and items they’ve lost and how community donations will benefit their students.

Three projects have already been funded.

For example, Graciela Dixon’s project is to replace classroom Lego and MagnaTiles sets used to support her students with special needs in math, science and mental health.

“Our students also use them to engage their peers and practice socialization skills,” Dixon wrote on her project. “It is essential that they be provided with ‘out of the box’ learning experiences since they have not been able to find success in the general education classroom.”

Helping Dixon and other educators – who can still post their projects on DonorsChoose – will help the school continue to feel like home for both staff and students as the community around them recovers.

How to help

Donate to educators’ projects on DonorsChoose. Either follow the link or enter “Planada Elementary School” in the DonorsChoose search box.

Donate books for students. Donated books will go home with students who’ve lost their home libraries in the flooding.

Earheart encouraged donors to “keep checking back” if they don’t immediately see any projects listed on the website. Multiple projects are expected to be rolled out on the website in the coming days.

“Teachers have a bunch of projects that have been created and are in the DonorsChoose review process,” Earheart said Saturday in a text message, “but don’t know when they will be active.”

The Education Lab is a local journalism initiative that highlights education issues critical to the advancement of the San Joaquin Valley. It is funded by donors. Learn about The Bee’s Education Lab at its website.

This story was originally published February 12, 2023, 5:30 AM.

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Lasherica Thornton is the Engagement Reporter for The Fresno Bee’s Education Lab in Fresno. She was previously the Education Reporter at The Jackson Sun, a Gannett and USA Today Network paper in Jackson, TN for more than three years.

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