When Fires Approach Schools, How Will Your District React? It Depends

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. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

The L.A. Unified School District closed more than 200 schools in the San Fernando Valley on Friday because of nearby fires and smoke.

The announcement of the closings at both traditional and charter schools came before the start of the school day via emails, text alerts, and social media.

But what happens if a fire approaches a school while classes are still in session?

That's largely left to the discretion of each school. In most cases, the LAUSD advocates a "shelter-in-place" approach, on the grounds that students are safest while on campus.

But if a situation occurs that requires evacuation — be it a fire, flood, or other immediately dangerous situation — principals rely on the district's inclement weather policy. While there's no specific provision for evacuating from approaching fires, an LAUSD spokeswoman said the school would be guided by Section III of the policy.

With the nearby Tick Fire blanketing the San Fernando Valley with smoke, L.A. Unified officials activated that policy, which directs school staff to notify the district office of unsafe conditions and gives final say on closing schools to the superintendent. The district says students are safest on campus, so administrators should exhaust all options before closing a school during class hours.

LAUSD also opened an Emergency Operations Center, as outlined in the policy, to monitor the dangers and inform top officials. L.A. Unified urges parents to check its web page for more information about the fire and school closures. It also recommends that all parents and school officials download a mobile emergency app where you can sign up for text alerts and get updated information on fires, earthquakes, school lockdowns, family reunification locations, and more.

A screenshot from LAUSD's mobile emergency app.

Under a provision of the California Education Code, all schools are required to have in place an overall safety plan that outlines the response to all manner of emergencies, from natural disasters to school shootings. In LAUSD, the district developed what is known as the Safe School Plan as a template for each school to use to develop its plan, which is required to be available in the school's main office for public review.

School districts in Southern California are increasingly having to communicate with fire departments, air quality officials, and city governments to decide whether to take action as fires become larger and more frequent.

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District — which closed schools in Malibu on Friday because of fire risks and preemptive power shutoffs — had direct experience during the devastating 2018 Woolsey fire.

"Last year, the Woolsey fire had a tremendous impact on Malibu," said Gail Pinsker, a spokeswoman for the 10,000-student district. "We lost 23 school days because of fire and the flooding from the torrential rains that we had right after the fires."

The school district has disaster policies in place as required by law, Pinsker said, and each campus has a school safety plan that guides campus staff on what to do in case of several scenarios.

But the decision on closing Malibu schools last year, she said, was driven by a decision by Malibu city officials to evacuate residents as flames approached.

"We learned that the community of Malibu was under evacuation orders, and therefore, we were unable to open our schools if the communities had evacuation orders in place," she said.

Several schools in the district, Pinsker said, sustained damage on their property.