Education

Wildfire smoke shut Sacramento-area schools. How will it affect budgets, calendars?

‘The standing ovation was bone chilling.’ Paradise High’s moment at Kings game

Paradise High assistant basketball coach Brian Rice lost his home to the Camp Fire. He joined students from the school at the Sacramento Kings game on Sunday. His team plays its first game Monday, Nov. 26, at Chico State. The games start at 5:30 p.m.
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Paradise High assistant basketball coach Brian Rice lost his home to the Camp Fire. He joined students from the school at the Sacramento Kings game on Sunday. His team plays its first game Monday, Nov. 26, at Chico State. The games start at 5:30 p.m.

School closures in the Sacramento region due to unhealthy air quality from the Camp Fire likely will not add days to this year’s school calendar, or take money out of budgets.

Schools across the Sacramento region closed last week as a thick layer of smoke loomed across the valley, pushing air quality levels into hazardous territory. The city of Sacramento handed out filtration masks, and people were warned to stay indoors. Multiple school districts canceled classes, along with the Los Rios Community College District, Sacramento State and University of California, Davis.

School administrators Monday said that most districts plan to apply for state waivers that will protect their funding despite the closures. California schools are funded under a formula that counts attendance as a factor. When students miss days, funding decreases. Closure of an entire school — or district — could be financially devastating without the waiver, reducing funding by millions for larger districts.

If the waivers are granted, it will mean districts don’t need to hold makeup days. Folsom Cordova Unified and other area districts are waiting for their waiver approval before deciding if additional school days are needed.

“We’re trying to have clarity as quickly as possible,” said Daniel Thigpen, spokesman for the Folsom Cordova Unified School District.

The state will likely grant the waivers.

“Safety is the absolute top priority for students and their families, and I thank school officials for acting quickly to close any school sites due to evacuations or hazardous air quality,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson in a Nov. 9 press release.

Making the decision to close was difficult, administrators said, with safety as the priority.

“Our decision to stay open or to close was not financially driven,” said Xanthi Pinkerton, Elk Grove Unified’s director of communications. “In the worst case scenario, we would do a makeup day and in the best case scenario we would be granted a waiver.”

Administrators said they weighed the inconvenience to parents before deciding to close.

“It’s not an easy decision anytime you decide to cancel school. It is incredibly disruptive,” said Thigpen.

Folsom Cordova Unified School District was the first to shut its doors, closing for two days before the Thanksgiving holiday break.

While Folsom’s Air Quality Index was not as hazardous as Sacramento’s, many Folsom Cordova Unified students in Rancho Cordova walk or bike to school, said Thigpen.

“We were checking with our nurses asking if kids were going home,” Thigpen said. “There was increase in respiratory illness, and we saw a lot of them going home on our Rancho Cordova side.”

Universities in the region were closed for longer periods of time during the Camp Fire. Sacramento State and UC Davis closed for a week, and both announced they would not reschedule additional instruction days.

Sacramento State University shifted deadlines, including class withdrawal dates, to accommodate students. UC Davis announced it would extend admissions deadlines for those affected by the Camp Fire.

“The greatest impact is to academics,” said Anita Fitzhugh, spokeswoman for California State University, Sacramento. “Our top priority is the educational experiences, and our faculty are working to reorganize their classes and syllabi to accommodate the lost class time.”

Sacramento State is still gathering information to estimate the closure’s financial impact.

Some parents said they appreciated the closures, but wish they had come sooner.

“They put my son’s health at risk,” said Veronica Quintanar, who kept her 13-year-old son home for extra days from his Elk Grove school because he has asthma.

Quintanar was among 16,000 Elk Grove parents who signed a petition asking the district to shut down before it did. Elk Grove closed all 67 of its campuses.

The Camp Fire started Thursday, November 8 at 6:33 a.m. in Paradise, near Chico. In these NASA satellite images, watch it destroy Paradise and spread smoke over California through Monday November 19.

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