On Oct. 9, Northern California wildfires damaged half of Cardinal Newman High School, leaving both students and faculty displaced.
“That’s the challenge we face—what are we going to do when not only is half the school damaged, but you can’t get back onto the site to use it for an extended time. We’re still in the phase where we aren’t cleared to use it with students,” Cardinal Newman Principal Graham Rutherford said.
On Oct. 17, staff met to decide how the school should move forward, deciding to place the students in four parishes based on their grade level. Classes on site of the parishes started on Oct. 23. The school hopes to have all classes back on site by mid-January. However, the destruction of the school has not torn apart the sense of camaraderie, according to Rutherford.
“It’s the people, not the buildings,” Rutherford said. “The school still exists, buildings can be rebuilt and replaced. It takes time and, yes, it’s inconvenient but really in the end the school is your community.”
According to Rutherford, the fire completely destroyed the administration building, 20 classrooms, the baseball field and the library. Four classrooms were damaged as well. Three faculty houses and 110 students’ homes (95 homes in total due to siblings) were destroyed in the fires, according to Rutherford.
“There were also a lot of families that were displaced. So even though their home didn’t burn, they still couldn’t go home,” Rutherford said.
Senior Joe Bone was evacuated twice since the fire started due to the air quality and threat of the fire burning down his house. He said displacements were common for many of his classmates who lost their homes. Bone said he feels that even though the school remains divided up into four sites, the study body has been maintained and their bonds have strengthened.
“This actually brought a lot of us closer because we stayed in groups at friends’ homes and would hang out and keep busy,” Bone said.
ASB Vice President senior Steven Zichichi housed evacuees for about a week because his house was unaffected.
“Everyone was affected by the fire in some way, whether it was by friends or family or themselves that lost a house,” Zichichi said.
According to Rutherford, there was a lot of uncertainty the first week following the fire about the status of people. Afterwards, the school reached out to those who needed support
On Oct. 18 and 19, the school hosted a retreat, split between freshmen and sophomores in one location and juniors and seniors in the other, to regroup and see how students were coping.
“It was two days of sharing and reflecting to let people talk and to hear their stories. Also, finding out who needed more help, having available counselors. Just really checking in and seeing where things stood,” Rutherford said.
By Oct. 23, students had returned to school in four different locations: freshmen at Resurrection Parish in Santa Rosa, sophomores at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Windsor, juniors at Saint Elizabeth Seton in Rohnert Park and seniors at Saint Joseph in Cotati. Classes are currently being held at each of the four sites from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. because the parishes have events in the afternoons.
“There is no perfect system, but we’re lucky that we have it. There’s only so much room and there's certainly no place in the county available to have 621 students and 80 faculty staff. This was our best compromise,” Rutherford said.
The efforts of the Cardinal Newman faculty allowed students to return to school two weeks after the fire, while other affected schools in the area didn’t start until as late as Oct. 30, a week after Cardinal Newman.
“Seeing students go through that, that’s why it’s so important to give them some normality of school because not only are they losing their home, but also their school site,” Rutherford said.
Teachers with grade specific classes, including English, social studies and religion still remain on their designated site by grade level, while math, science and language department teachers rotate between the four sites.
“Most of our classwork is through Google Classroom and other academic sites online that offer lectures and assignments,” Bone said.
According to Zichichi, having the bulk of the classwork online has not been a problem and that the parishes aren’t taken for granted. But, the lack of routine for the student-body has sometimes been overwhelming.
“Right now, we’re just trying to get back to a routine because everything was thrown out of wack, so now everyone is working back to get into a normal routine,” Zichichi said.
According to Rutherford, the school hopes to be back on site by January. Rutherford said he believes that returning to the norm of going to school and seeing friends is good for the students as it helps keep their minds off the recent events.
Following the fire, the school community had been clearing the burnt debris and hoped to be done by early December to start setting up the portable classrooms. Along with the 14 classrooms that weren’t impacted by the fire, the school has 22 portable classrooms ready to set up.
“There is plenty of set-up to do, but we have the ability to replace all the classrooms that were lost. Once that happens, having people on campus will be a really good thing,” Rutherford said.
Before installing the portable classrooms, an area has to be cleared and a rock base has to be set, as well as a rock parking lot, according to Rutherford. Six portables will be next to the gym and parking lot, neither of which suffered damage in the fire.
Without the central hub of the school, Rutherford believes that the continuation of sports is vital to returning to normality and a chance for students socialize with their peers.
“It gave them something to do together and [have] some feeling of control again in your life. For a lot of students, the feeling was out of control, beyond anyone’s ability to do anything. But if you study hard or play a sport, you feel like if I make a good effort, I can make the result I want it to be,” Rutherford said.
Efforts after the fire also included reaching out to colleges to get extensions for seniors with deadlines approaching. According to Rutherford, many students had also taken the SAT at Cardinal Newman the Saturday before the fire and had to retake it the first Saturday of November because the results of the first test were destroyed in the fire.
“A lot of what we have done is try to empower people to make sure they're supported and that they know that there is care and concern for them,” Rutherford said.
Rutherford has been the principal for the last 14 years and says this is a setback for the growth of the school.
“Personally, I went to the school and I worked there pretty much my whole life. I’ve seen it change and grow. I thought we were making a lot of progress and improvement and it feels like you’re getting knocked down,” Rutherford said.
The students have taken and learned a lot from this disaster and have become more united, according to Bone.
“I realized how little some people in my community have. Many people that had homes burn didn’t have insurance to pay for them to rebuild. Also, this has helped our community come together and build strong bonds,” Bone said.
Along with the strengthened bonds of the students, they have also learned not to take things for granted according to Zichichi.
“I learned to never take anything for granted because it’s crazy to see how quickly things can be lost. I think it’s helped us be more independent because we had to make some decisions on our own,” Zichichi said.