NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – With Mora being right in the path of the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon Fire, fire evacuations happened fast for everyone. Educators have had a particularly challenging time: balancing the safety of themselves and their students while also trying to focus on education.

“We got the notification at like 11:00 a.m., and by noon we sent everybody home, including staff,” says Lefonso Castillo, principal of both Mora High School and Lázaro García Middle School.

Schools were quickly converted into base camps for the forest service and fire crews. Middle school teacher Tina Burton-Crunk remembers the heavy smoke and ash falling like snow on the town. After evacuating, she jumped in to help at the Peñasco evacuation site, where she caught up with some of her students.

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“We only evacuated two weeks and then we came home and in that time we were doing online—at least two hours a day trying to check in with kiddos that were able to log in,” Burton-Crunk says. She says out of around 88 students, she was able to get in touch with just over half online and via text to make sure they were safe. However, many of those she never got to see face-to-face—and as far as the lesson plan: “It affected it. There’s no way around it. It did affect it. You figure we finished in April. It was towards the end of April and we missed almost a whole month,” Burton-Crunk says.

Castillo says the evacuations scattered students all over: “So we did send out a google survey to see where everybody was at, and about 60% of our students were displaced at the time. And staff members.”

“I know some of our teachers at the evacuation centers and hotels and different places—they worked with kids in the lobbies,” Castillo says. In addition to those challenges, he says half of their students also said they didn’t have access to reliable WiFi. Castillo says the main focus now nearing the end of the school year have been the social and emotional well-being of the students: “‘Cause how could we expect a kid to come in and work on stuff when like I said they were living in a gym with 40 cots and having to work in a lobby and stuff like that?” Castillo says.

The school year for Mora County officially ends Thursday. The seniors have their prom Thursday at the Governor’s Mansion and will have graduation in Santa Fe on Friday. Officials hope summer school will be a chance for some of the students to get caught up and start the next school year off on the right foot.

The superintendent of the Mora Independent School District says the COVID pandemic helped them to facilitate the remote learning required in this case.