Disasters are changing the role of educators

Meet the assistant superintendent leading a rural district through wildfire and COVID-19.

It was the second day of school for Greenville Elementary school, and students were scattered across the playground, soaking in the late August sun. On the swings, some kicked their way closer to the cloudless sky; others scampered around on the multicolored jungle gym. There were shrieks and snacks and one skinned elbow, and the air was fragrant with the freshly laid woodchips that cushioned the students’ rapid descent from the slide. 

It’s the kind of scene Kristy Warren has witnessed countless times. She first came here as a student herself, then returned about 20 years later as a school principal. Since then, in the course of her seven years as the Plumas County assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, she’s made regular visits to the stretch of road where this small Northern California town’s elementary school and junior-senior high school stand side-by-side.


But this day was different. After more than two years of school closures and crises — first the pandemic, then the devastating Dixie Fire — the campus was alive with activity. This year marked the first time since 2019 that Greenville’s students would return to these classrooms on schedule as well as in person. Standing on the newly poured blacktop with a few teachers, Warren agreed that it looked like a regular school day — if you ignored the backdrop of fire-blackened trees.

Working as a school administrator in a rural county with fewer than 20,000 people comes with its own unique challenges, and the disasters Warren’s district has weathered in recent years have only expanded her role. Warren juggles responsibilities that would likely be shared in a larger or wealthier district, including overseeing the curriculum — from early learning through adult education — for all eight of Plumas County’s schools, and dealing with everything from human resources and hiring to technology and budgeting. 

Children play on the swings while a group practice cheerleading in the grass during recess on the second day of the school year after more than two years of closures and crises.

After COVID-19 shuttered the schools in March 2020, Warren oversaw getting the district’s 125 teachers set up online, first with Zoom and then using a new system she selected. When students finally began to resume in-person learning, she fielded questions and complaints about the mask mandates and helped set up a testing system that screened hundreds of students a day. She was eager to get kids back in the classroom, and she spent the summer of 2021 optimistically preparing for what was supposed to be a more normal fall, now that vaccines were readily available.

From left, Kristy Warren, the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, talks about using the Canvas program with Jacque Ricci, administrative assistant, David Andreasen, Chester High School principal, and Katie Vaca, attendance and registrar.


But on the evening of Aug. 4, less than three weeks before the first day of school, the Dixie Fire, the second-largest wildfire in California’s history, swept through Greenville. The nearly 964,000-acre blaze devastated the town and destroyed the majority of its buildings, including Warren’s childhood home. Residents were evacuated, and many found little remaining when they returned. The flames licked the corner of the high school gym, destroyed the elementary school’s wooden welcome sign, and melted the playground equipment, but the main buildings survived. 

“There’s not one person here who wasn’t affected in some way, shape or form,” Warren said. “Some lost their homes, some didn’t, but the whole community definitely was impacted, because chances are they knew a friend or family member who did.” 

“There’s not one person here who wasn’t affected in some way, shape or form.” 

Trees burned by the Dixie Fire, the second-largest wildfire in California’s history, are be seen on the hill behind Greenville Elementary School.

The district postponed the start of school for two weeks, giving an additional four weeks to Greenville students, who were offered independent study or the option to attend another school within the Plumas County district. Since much of the area did not have dependable WiFi, Greenville Elementary School teacher Maria Johnson said she printed out learning packets and delivered them to students so they could stay on track with their education. Still, many of the residents remained displaced, and less than half the town’s students from the previous year registered with Greenville schools after the fire.

Meanwhile, Warren and the other district staff navigated the bureaucracy of the disaster recovery system, reaching out to state and federal officials for assistance. Though Greenville’s school buildings had survived the fire physically, they were unsafe for students: There was no electricity, debris was all around, and hazardous chemicals had been found in the ground and water. But because the buildings were intact, the schools were ineligible for most recovery funding, and regulations made it difficult to cope by shifting around resources. Warren offered one example of red tape she encountered, recalling how they had to appeal directly to the governor’s office just to use a multipurpose hall on another campus as a cafeteria.

Kristy Warren speaks with Klimek Camille, left, intervention specialist, about how an online program can be used to identify students that could benefit from interventions.

At the same time, Plumas County was still dealing with COVID-19. In October, there was an outbreak that sent home teachers and about a third of the students, Warren estimates. Another wave followed around the holidays, and this time so many staff got sick that Warren had to step in as a substitute teacher.

“You just add on all the recovery and the trauma and COVID, and everyone's just tired,” Warren told me in February, during another outbreak. “Everyone’s job is different; no one’s doing what they were hired to do three years ago.”

“Everyone’s job is different; no one’s doing what they were hired to do three years ago.”

After recess on the August day I visited, Warren snapped a selfie in the refurbished gym and watched the newly-made wooden welcome sign be placed in the front of the elementary school. It was just over a year since the Dixie Fire, and the Greenville schools were surrounded by properties in the early stages of construction. Warren told me how much it meant to see students and staff back on this campus again, especially since it almost didn’t happen. The school’s WiFi, which is currently supplied by a large temporary tower behind the buildings, was unreliable; there was no air conditioning, and temperatures that first week were expected to soar into the 90s. Ultimately, Warren said, the administrators and staff still agreed it was worth moving forward (and getting fans). Being back in the classroom would give the teachers a chance to better address the trauma students had experienced; already, some teachers told Warren they’d noticed how some students flinched whenever the bells rang, and there was a lot of anxiety around the idea of fire drills. Warren said she believed it was for the community to see the school reopen, too: The busy campus stood as a sign of progress and hope.

Left, signs welcome students back to Greenville Elementary. Right, after the Dixie Fire, air purifiers are placed in all classrooms and hallways at Chester High School.


Warren ended the day back at her desk in the nearby town of Quincy. She fielded phone calls from colleagues and state officials while checking on how many students had actually returned, compared to how many they’d expected. In Greenville, the numbers were still dozens shy of their 2020 tallies, but up from last year by nearly 50 students. Overall, the first days back had been a success, but there were still challenges to tackle. One teacher out with COVID-19, and there was the larger issue of the district’s teacher shortage — they were looking to fill about a dozen spots, and the lack of affordable housing since the fire made finding replacements even harder. The hot weather also served as a reminder of teacher requests, like the social studies department’s ask for more physical textbooks since technology could not always be relied on during warmer months. Here in Northern California, the growing wildfire risk has made public safety power shutoffs a regular feature of recent autumns. In many of the district’s schools, bright yellow air purifiers line the halls in case of smoky days.

Warren has added yet another responsibility to her roster in recent months: She has begun sharing her district’s experience of disaster recovery with other school administrators. Climate change is making extreme weather events increasingly severe and common, and a Government Accountability Office study found more than half of the nation’s public-school districts are located in counties that were officially declared disaster areas between 2017 and 2019. Warren’s hard-earned knowledge will prove increasingly useful to other fire-threatened rural communities in the West.  

“Now we have our story,” Warren said, “and we’re able to help others.”

Kristy Warren talks with Greenville Elementary School Principal Jennifer Brockman-Maxwell.

Colleen Hagerty is an independent multimedia journalist specializing in disaster coverage. Her reporting digs into the policies, politics, technologies and cultural forces that shape the impacts of natural hazards on communities.

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