Hard-hit educators testify on wildfire response and recovery

Educators from across California provided emotional testimony at a Feb. 6 hearing about the impact of recent wildfires on schools and communities. In what several speakers called the “new normal” due to climate change and a now year-round fire season, firestorms have caused unprecedented damage to school districts statewide since 2017. The State Assembly’s Education Committee met at the Capitol to assess the recovery process, what more needs to be done, and how to prepare for future fires and other disasters.

“In the past two and half years, California has experienced an unprecedented number of wildfires which have both directly and indirectly impacted our public schools,” Committee Chair Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach) said. “This hearing will help us reflect upon any lessons learned, areas where state policy could improve conditions for school communities as they prepare for, respond to, and recover from future natural disasters. This isn’t just about the past but about going forward as well, which I know many communities are working hard to do.”

Staff, administrators and teachers from those communities, stretching from Montecito to Santa Rosa to Butte County, shared their experiences at the hearing to help with that process.

View broadcast of the Feb. 6 hearing

From mental health services to budgets, the devastation and displacement have been costly both socio-emotionally and financially to school communities, the panelists said.

Several speakers highlighted the need for funds to hire more trauma counselors to help students and staff process the events. David Smith, a teacher in Paradise Unified School District for example, shared before and after pictures of his destroyed school building and described students (who now attend school in s and retail outlets) still unnerved by certain noises and environments. Zoe Miller, a teacher from Santa Rosa City Schools, said her only possessions were those left in her classroom after she lost her home in the fall of 2017. It took months for her and many colleagues to feel fully ready to teach again, she said.

The financial damage from the past two years’ wildfires has been substantial as well. Many schools lost funding tied to average daily attendance as enrollment declined or fluctuated. Costs also increased as displaced students suddenly had to be transported long distances to attend class. Meanwhile, districts such as Paradise USD had school buses destroyed by fires. Schools also absorbed unexpected costs from educating, sheltering and feeding students from other campuses.

Educationally, students lost instruction time due to school closures and missed days. Amy Alzina, superintendent/principal of Cold Spring School District near Santa Barbara, estimated her students missed about 10 percent of the academic year due to fires and subsequent landslides. Elsewhere, school districts far from the blazes still closed or cancelled outdoor recess and athletics due to smoky air. Academic counselors too pivoted from advising students on coursework to helping them find housing and other services.

How best to respond to these challenges in the event of future emergencies is an open question. Adding to the issue, many school leaders are not trained in crisis response and assessing safety thresholds for opening schools.

“Educators are [suddenly] expected to act as public health experts,” Steven Herrington, Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools, said of the current system. That system does not have established standards or scientific consensus on safe air quality following toxic smoke, or campus safety and cleanup due to ash and other debris. Even smaller issues such as the effectiveness of face masks protecting from smoke are unsettled.

For now, educators are developing their own responses and best practices. In fire-scarred Butte County, CSBA Immediate Past President and Butte County Office of Education trustee Mike Walsh said, “The challenge was that our students were displaced with almost everyone of them having no home to return to after the evacuations were lifted, and an entire town having been taken off the map in the middle of a school year. That meant that every school, traditional school or charter school, public or private, was in crisis and we chose to serve them all. Each board member took on a different responsibility such as helping coordinate trauma support, updating state agencies, and working with legislators to secure long-term funding. ”

Other recommendations at the hearing included:

  • Maintaining a state task force involving multiple agencies and technical experts to standardize fire-response protocols
  • Developing a wildfire emergency toolkit for county offices of education and school districts
  • Training school leaders on fire-specific emergency response
  • Ensuring waivers of state requirements for average daily attendance, class sizes and physical education classes in the event of a fire emergency
  • Funding for increased transportation costs and school buses
  • Funding for bilingual counselors for English leaner families
  • Hiring financial experts to assist local educational agencies with state and federal agencies protocols and grants
  • Providing supplemental funds to help schools and districts pay for unexpected costs
  • Establishing school liaisons to work with local, state and federal authorities during emergencies
  • Allowing for Field Act flexibility to allow schools to more easily relocate to temporary facilities.

These suggestions are being considered as the California Department of Education works on a path forward ahead of future fire emergencies. “We are learning as we go,” State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said at the hearing, adding that the state will hold a school-based fire emergency training on March 6. “[Before the fires] no one considered transportation costs … or the number of counselors a school might need. We need help and we need to make sure we are properly resourced long-term to support these new demands around education.”

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CA School Boards Assoc.

CSBA represents nearly all of California’s 1,000 K-12 school districts and county offices of education.