As Wildfires Die Down, Calif. Schools Look to Reopen
With the Santa Ana winds subsiding and wildfires being contained in hard-hit parts of Southern California, officials in some areas where schools have been closed for days—including San Diego—were making cautious plans to reopen next week.
“Some are trying to open back up on Monday, but it will depend on individual situations—where the wind blows, how bad it gets, how much of a handle they’ve got on the fire, whether they can move the forces together,” said Tina W. Jung, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Education, which has been in touch with all affected school districts during the fires.
At the peak of the crisis, authorities estimated that more than 300 schools had been closed and instruction disrupted in some way for 1.2 million students by the fires, which have caused an estimated $1 billion in damage from the Mexican border to north of Los Angeles. Although the situation had eased by week’s end, about 650,000 students remained affected, either because their schools were closed, or because they chose to stay home or were left without transportation.
In the 133,000-student San Diego Unified school district, which had been closed for four days, officials plan to return to a normal schedule early next week, although the reopening of individual schools will depend on the condition of the neighborhoods and whether the schools are being used as emergency shelters. Three schools, as well as five child-development centers in the district, were used as shelters during the emergency.
For a closer look at the situation on the ground in Southern California, view a Google Maps presentation on how the fires are impacting services and schools in the affected areas.
State officials, meanwhile are in the process of gathering information about damage to school buildings, as well as providing information to students, parents, and faculty about coping with the aftermath of the fires.
“A lot of teachers and students have lost their homes, and we’re trying to get them some help,” said Ms. Jung. “We’re nailing down some good, firm advice to give to schools and parents.”
In an interview, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell acknowledged that the emergency is likely to have an impact on attendance, at least in the short run.
“The students are going to show up someplace, and we’ll accommodate changing demographic patterns,” he said. “We understand the need for more flexibility, and we’ll be more innovative until we can hire additional teachers and provide additional facilities.”
Removing Barriers, Providing Assistance
Mr. O’Connell has assured districts that he will push for legislation that would reimburse or grant waivers to schools that exceed the maximum 20-to-1 pupil-teacher ratio needed to receive incentive money under the state’s class-size-reduction program as a result of displaced students. The program allows for about $1,000 per student in incentive funds for schools that comply with the ratio.
President Bush declared a state of emergency on Oct. 21 for the seven affected counties—Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Ventura—freeing up federal money to help with disaster relief and recovery.
In part, the money will reimburse schools serving as shelters for expenses such as food taken from the National School Lunch Program to help feed evacuees.
“We will work with affected districts participating in the National School Lunch program because they may qualify for additional assistance. Specifically, they may serve meals at no charge to students rendered homeless, and can be designated as community feeding sites,” Mr. O’Connell said in an Oct. 22 statement.
Mr. O’Connell has also promised that all schools that were forced to close or turn into emergency shelters will not lose state funding based on average daily attendance.“We’re here to remove barriers and provide assistance,” he said.
Teachers have shown dedication and enthusiasm in the crisis, said Ms. Jung.
“We’re starting to hear stories of classes being held in shelters,” she said. “The school districts are doing a great job … They’re not in their homes, and they’re still coming to work.”