School Climate & Safety

Students, Staff Suffer Wildfires’ Aftermath

By Linda Jacobson — November 01, 2007 5 min read
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Andrea Barraugh’s 5th graders at Westwood Elementary School had been studying in recent weeks about the chemical reaction that occurs when paper burns.

Now, some two weeks after wildfires struck parts of this San Diego County community, teachers such as Ms. Barraugh are looking for ways to make the disaster relevant to the curriculum, while remaining sensitive to the hundreds of students who were personally affected.

“I think it’s too fresh right now. Some of them drove through flames,” Ms. Barraugh said of those whose families were forced to flee, adding that she thought about asking her students, who have been studying explorers, to make a map of the areas burned by the fire. “Emotionally, they’re not ready.”

More than 300 children and about 20 staff members in the 33,000-student Poway Unified School District lost their homes in the Witch Creek fire, one of several that raged though San Diego County and other parts of Southern California in recent weeks, forcing hundreds of thousands to evacuate at one point.

About 50 of the Poway children attend Westwood Elementary, which is tucked back in a neighborhood of apartment buildings and single-family homes.

Last week, even as they were keeping an eye on warnings that winds could pick up once again and threaten to spread fires that had already been contained, school district employees said they were trying to resume a normal schedule for students.

But after days of staying inside because of smoke and ash in the air—and watching coverage of the fires on TV—some children weren’t feeling completely safe.

“The air quality is fine,” Westwood Principal Mike Mosgrove told a staff member on the phone after hearing that some children were reluctant to go outside for recess. A multipurpose room was opened so they could play inside.

Staying Closed

At the height of the fires, more than 300 schools were closed and instruction was disrupted in some way for roughly 1.2 million students throughout Southern California. As of last week, most of those students were back in school. The exceptions were a few locations where schools themselves were damaged.

According to Jim Esterbrooks, a spokesman for the San Diego County Office of Education, damage to school facilities was “incredibly limited.” Of the 42 school districts in the county, only Mountain Empire Unified, a district of 1,700 students, kept some students home. Those pupils were from Potrero Elementary School, where repairs were needed to a preschool classroom and two elementary classrooms that were damaged.

Bobbie Davis looks over the remains of her home. More than 300 children and about 20 staff members in the Poway Unified School District lost their homes.

The 5,700-student Rim of the World Unified School District, which was affected by a fire at Lake Arrowhead in San Bernardino County, also remained closed last week. While no schools were damaged, the sites were being thoroughly cleaned and inspected.

Roaring flames weren’t the only cause of damage to schools. In Riverside County, east of Los Angeles, winds blew so hard that they caused sandstorms, leading to sand piling up inside schools.

“There were just inches of sand in the doorways,” said Kathy Brooks, a secretary at the central office of the 9,000-student San Jacinto Unified School District. “The computers were full of dirt and dust.”

Long-Term Effects

Here in the 35-school Poway district, schools have been serving as resource centers for families whose homes were destroyed or who are still displaced because of smoke or water damage to their homes. At the most-affected schools, counselors were dispatched to be available for students, parents, and teachers who needed to talk to someone about their concerns.

“One of the things to look for is not necessarily the short-term affect,” Mr. Mosgrove said.

At the elementary level, California doesn’t provide state money for all schools to have counselors, leaving districts to rely on grants and local school funds to pay for those positions.

To Fran Hjalmarson, an elementary counselor and part of the Poway district’s crisis response team, that’s a policy issue that becomes more critical when something like the devastating fires occurs. Middle and high schools have regular counselors on staff, as do the district’s elementary schools that receive federal Title I aid for disadvantaged students.

In contrast, Westwood Elementary’s counselor also works at three other schools during the week.

“How effective is that?” Ms. Hjalmarson said.

At Poway High School, teachers and students were feeling the stress of a lost week of instruction.

“The [Advanced Placement] tests are still the same date,” said Sammy Kassira, a senior at the 3,000-student school. She added that students really couldn’t use the time away from class to get ahead on studying. “When you’re watching the news,” she said, “you can’t really do math homework.”

English teacher April Sullivan said she was looking for shorter books to teach the same standards that she had planned to cover with longer texts. And she was trying to give students in her five classes a chance to talk about the fires.

At Poway High, there was also pride that the school had served as a staging area for firefighters and law-enforcement officials.

The district saw its way through these latest fires in part through the lessons learned exactly four years ago, when the Cedar fire swept through San Diego County’s Scripps Ranch community and hundreds of houses were lost.

Then, schools had individual calling and e-mail systems to keep parents informed. Now, employees and parents are raving about a districtwide program called Connect-ED, which can send an emergency message to as many as six different phone numbers.

Teachers Volunteer

People throughout San Diego County also talk about how quickly members of the education community helped students and fellow teachers through the crisis.

While families were housed at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Emily Longerbone, a special education teacher at Serra High School in the 133,000-student San Diego Unified district, helped coordinate education activities for preschoolers and school-age children.

By the time the evacuees were leaving the stadium on Oct. 26, more than 500 members of the San Diego Education Association had volunteered their time at a makeshift school in one of Qualcomm’s large hallways.

For Poway Superintendent Don Phillips, the experience shows how much schools are a part of the social fabric of the community.

“We played a part in the emergency, but we also played a part in the response,” he said. “That social fabric did well, but it got tested.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2007 edition of Education Week as Students, Staff Suffer Wildfires’ Aftermath

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