After nearly three months studying in temporary off-site buildings, students and staff at Pi Beta Phi Elementary School in Gatlinburg moved back to their old school building on Tuesday.
On Nov. 28, the Sevier County wildfires approached the school, stopping just feet away from the historic building. Wind and extreme heat shattered several windows in the art building, sending a wave of smoke into the school that forced the staff to evacuate an estimated 500 students.
The building itself remained untouched by the flames, although the fire did destroy three homes adjacent to the school’s art room.
Looking at the charred remains just beyond the historic Pi Beta Phi building, Principal Carey Woods counts her school fortunate.
"It’s just a reminder to me how precious every day is,” she said.
Since those fires, Woods said staff and students have adapted to a “new normal." While maintenance workers cleaned the smoke-filled building, students were split between three temporary off-campus buildings: Kindergarteners through 5th graders traveled to an old building on Webb Creek in Pittman Center, 6th graders attended school at the Eugene Huskey Environment Center, while 7th and 8th graders visited the Boys and Girls Club near Gatlinburg-Pittman High School.
The K-5 building in Pittman Center was renovated within six days to accommodate the move. In that time, faculty and staff took counseling sessions to help students still coping with trauma.
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“More and more, we are counselors. We are sometimes the only warm meal a child gets,” Woods said. “Nov. 28 is every day. It’s daily conversations that cannot be ignored.”
Of Pi Beta Phi’s 509 students, 131 lost their homes. Seven teachers also lost their homes – including middle school language arts teacher Jeff Ginn.
“It was wrenching to lose the things you can’t get back: my kid’s first birthday presents, cards, that sort of thing,” Ginn said.
He was able to save his photo albums, and his family made it out with their lives. A former student did offer him housing, and insurance will rebuild his old house.
He is now back in the classroom with students who he says are just as resilient -- if not more -- than the staff themselves.
"Incredible strength,” he said. “They immediately came to ask how I was doing, even though I know some of them had lost their homes as well."
Principal Woods said donations, thoughtful letters and Valentine’s Day cards have poured into the school from across the country.
“At one point the entire front entrance was just filled with ‘We care about you’ cards,” she said.
As her students return home to the old building, she is thanking the donors for the security and sense of belonging they gave to the Pi Beta Phi community.
"The love and outreach - it's just beyond anything I've ever, ever experienced," she said.