May 26, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Schools in Gatlinburg, TN, Begin Long Recovery from Wildfires

gaitlintnWeeks after fires blazed through the area, generating a firestorm with reported hurricane force winds, Sevier County schools is still picking up the pieces that saw damage to two schools, untold homes, and the lives of two young students at Pi Beta Phi Elementary School in Gatlinburg, TN.

“We’ve been really doing a lot of work with students with grief counselors,” says assistant superintendent Debra Cline. “And we’ve done a lot of work to get everybody back in school and into a normal environment as quickly as possible.”

Two schools in the Gatlinburg area, Gatlinburg-Pittman High School and Pi Beta Phi were both affected by the fires. Pi Beta Phi is still unable to be used by its 509 students, Cline says. The school, just off the East Parkway in Gatllnburg, is nestled in the nook of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where the fire began. The building suffered broken windows, with the resulting smoke damage currently being evaluated, says Cline.

“We had around 13,000 books in that school library, and we’re still doing inventory around the damage related to smoke,” she says.

The wildfire that tore through the Gatlinburg area at the end of November left a reported 14 people dead, including the two young students, along with 191 injured. More than 2,400 homes, businesses, and buildings were completely destroyed by the fire as well, along with 20,000 acres in the national park. Two teens have been charged with starting the fire that began on November 23.

The district relocated elementary students to two temporary sites, with kindergarten through fifth grade at the Pittman Center School, a former school site; sixth graders at Eugene W. Huskey Environmental Center; and seventh and eighth graders at the Boys and Girls Club of Gatlinburg.

Staff at the temporary locations are already starting to check out books to students through classrooms, says Cline. But the district’s library supervisor has not been able to assist for several days, as “she was actually personally impacted by the disaster,” Cline adds

While the district says that it did not lose any equipment or books, Cline knows that returning to the original schools is important to the children—particularly as some have been displaced from their own homes .

High school students returned to their school on December 5, with the younger students assigned to temporary locations on December 7. Getting all children back into regular classes was a priority for the district, to give the students some regularity to their day, says Cline.

“Students like to be with each other, to see their friends are safe, and have the normalcy of [the] school schedule,” she says. “When we have people in temporary housing, that gives them a sense of continuity, and we found that it was very positive for them to be back to school so quickly.”

Donations and offers of support have flown into the school system according to Cline—all, she adds, appreciated. The district notes that now, though, monetary donations would be best used for students and staff who have lost homes or have other needs, as well for affected schools, according to Sevier’s website.

“A process is being established with the individual school principals to distribute these funds directly to the families and to the schools,” reads the site.

Cline says she knows a lot of people around the world consider Gatlinburg a second home, and she wants to reassure them that the city and its schools will come back.

“We say in this area that we’re mountain tough,” she says. “We’re going to fully recover from this.”


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Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at

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  1. Sally Murphy says:

    This is really something! You make me proud to be your Aunt.