Saddleridge Fire: Some LAUSD Students Returned To Smoky, Ash-Filled Classrooms This Week. Teachers Are Asking Why.

United Teachers Los Angeles union members and their supporters protest outside Van Gogh Charter School, an elementary school in Granada Hills run by the L.A. Unified School District on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. The school was less than a half-mile away from the burn area of the Saddleridge Fire. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC/LAist)

When Shari Selman returned to her kindergarten classroom at Van Gogh Charter School on Monday morning, before the children arrived, she immediately began rubbing down every surface with baby wipes. The baby wipes turned black.

"The smell was atrocious," the teacher said. "Our eyes were burning and throats were on fire before the students even arrived."

Shari Selman, a kindergarten teacher at Van Gogh Charter School in Granada Hills, holds up a dirty baby wipe she used to clean a surface in her classroom when it reopened Monday. The previous Friday, the Saddleridge Fire had forced the campus to close. (Courtesy of Shari Selman)

The Friday before, flames from the Saddleridge Fire had crept to within a half-mile of Van Gogh, blanketing the K-5 campus in Granada Hills with ash and smoke.

On Sunday, Los Angeles Unified School District officials said crews had worked through the weekend to ensure that Van Gogh — and many other of the district's San Fernando Valley campuses that had been sooted by the fire — would be clean and "ready when classes resume tomorrow morning."

But Selman said the classroom she returned to Monday was still covered with a thin layer of fire ash. District officials had said cleaning crews would likely return to campuses Monday for "additional cleaning."

Sure enough, by "mid-afternoon," Selman said a cleaning crew arrived to wipe down her room's desks and chairs.

Meanwhile, prompted by complaints about "headaches, burning eyes and dizziness," some parents at Van Gogh and at least four other campuses in or near evacuation zones told KPCC/LAist they opted to pick their children up early.

Wildfire ash can trigger asthma attacks and commonly irritates the lungs, nose and skin.

To some LAUSD parents and teachers, it adds up to the question: Why were these campuses open at all?

'NOT UNTIL THEY'RE CLEAN'

On Tuesday, United Teachers Los Angeles — the union representing LAUSD teachers — held a rally outside Van Gogh to protest the district's handling of the Saddleridge Fire.

Even as the fire spread Friday morning, union leaders publicly criticized district leaders for canceling classes in only 13 LAUSD sites that were closest to the fire.

Union officials said they felt the district should have closed all of its campuses in the San Fernando Valley — some 220 schools — before air quality and traffic got worse. Instead, LAUSD officials allowed classes to begin at most of these schools before later deciding to dismiss students early.

This week, UTLA members are renewing their criticism, saying district officials should have cancelled classes to give LAUSD time to ensure campuses affected by smoke or ash from the Saddleridge Fire were clean.

"Of course, there's going to be tough calls and situations," the union's president, Alex Caputo-Pearl, said in an interview. "We understand that, and people are human. But you've got to have an overall framework that is ready to make decisions about closing schools, getting schools cleaned quickly and not bringing people back into them until they're clean."

At the protest, some teachers wondered why LAUSD officials didn't take their cues from the valley's independent charter schools. Most of these schools — which are also publicly funded but run separately from LAUSD — decided early Friday to cancel classes.

And on Monday, Granada Hills Charter High School remained closed as crews deep-cleaned both campuses with "HEPA vacuums" and power washers, according to a statement. UTLA questioned why LAUSD didn't follow Granada Hills Charter's lead.

CLEANING CREWS ARE STILL WORKING

Joseph Nacorda — the LAUSD administrator overseeing all schools in the west San Fernando Valley — issued a statement acknowledging "this has been a challenging time for our students, employees and families."

"We thank everyone," Nacorda's statement added, "for their continued understanding and support."

District officials have detailed their cleanup efforts in a series of statements.

On Sunday afternoon, district leaders decided LAUSD schools would be open on Monday, albeit with "limited" outdoor activities. They said maintenance crews had "worked this weekend to replace air filters and clean the campuses that were affected by the fires."

At midday Monday, Nacorda released another update noting the district would provide masks "for students and staff who request them," and continue to run classroom air conditioners "to filter residual smoke."

He also said that cleaning crews were still working: "Students may be relocated from their regular classroom while this cleaning occurs."

On Tuesday, Nacorda issued another update saying crews continued to clean well into Monday night, and were still cleaning campuses Tuesday morning.

When asked if LAUSD officials had considered keeping schools closed until their cleanliness could be ensured, a spokeswoman said Nacorda's statement was the district's only comment on the matter for now.

Frost Middle School teacher Randall Pollack holds up a respiratory mask that was distributed on his L.A. Unified campus during a United Teachers Los Angeles protest on Tues., Oct. 15, 2019. In the background, union president Alex Caputo-Pearl (left) looks on. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC/LAist)

'A DECISION I SHOULDN'T HAVE HAD TO MAKE'

Still, the decision to open campuses as they were still being cleaned puzzled many parents and teachers.

"My room smelled so bad," said Robyn Reinhart, a second grade teacher at Van Gogh, "that since the air was 'fresher' outside, we [my class] spent 3 hours outside."

Reinhart noted that this decision to hold classes outside went against LAUSD's advice — which was to have students stay indoors as much as possible.

"I was forced," Reinhart wrote in an email, "to make a decision I shouldn't have had to make; stay inside where the air was polluted and unbreathable, with kids coughing and complaining of the smell, or go outside."

Three miles away, at Castlebay Lane in Porter Ranch — another LAUSD school inside a Saddleridge Fire evacuation zone — the principal asked the district to shampoo the school's carpets, clean the HVAC ducts and deliver air purifiers for each classroom.

According to an email update to Castlebay parents Monday night, shared with KPCC/LAist by one parent, the school was still waiting for all three to arrive.

At Frost Middle School, teacher Randall Pollack told Tuesday night's UTLA rally that a student had vomited because of poor air quality inside the school.

Student Katelyn M. Crowne helps out in the library of her school, Nobel Middle School in Northridge. She say the acrid smell from the fire has lingered there through the past two days.

"It's such awful smoke," Crowne said. "My librarian has vacuumed, dusted, cleaned — everything she can do in her power ... but they just need help and the district isn't giving them that."

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the school where teacher Randall Pollack works; he's a teacher at Frost Middle School, not Nobel Middle School. LAist regrets the error.