“I could hardly breath,” he said Tuesday after school, adding that he thought the air was worse inside classrooms than outside. “When I went to the library Monday, I couldn’t go inside because it was too smokey.”
Behind him, a protest was underway by some 60 teachers represented by United Teachers Los Angeles over Los Angeles Unified School District’s response to the blaze, which broke out late Thursday in Sylmar. Wearing surgical masks and holding signs, they demanded that the massive district institute a protocol for its response during and after natural disasters.
Teachers and students from a handful of schools in the area said they arrived to campus Monday, after receiving word that they had been cleaned over the weekend, only to find smokey rooms and tables layered with ash.
“The stench inside and in the neighborhood was atrocious,” said Van Gogh teacher Lisa Bennett, who said she took her students outside for better air quality. “We are not strangers to fire, but there needs to be a protocol. They told us the school had been cleaned but that was not true. It had only been cleaned on the exterior.”
UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl suggested that schools should have been closed Monday if they weren’t clean, and demanded the district work with schools, emergency responders and community groups to develop a standard plan at LAUSD schools for future disasters.
Nearby Granada Hills Charter High, for example, stayed closed Monday to allow time to clean the campus.
“LAUSD needs to engage stakeholders in a real plan for when the next fire happens,” said Caputo-Pearl. “We need a plan that everybody knows about with a list of what we do and what the protocol is to keep students and educators safe.”
Feels like a throwback to the @LASchools teachers strike in Granada Hills at Van Gogh Elementary School. @UTLAnow represented teachers are wearing masks and picketing against what they say was poor district protocol at schools during and after the #SaddleRidgeFire in the SFV pic.twitter.com/3KrnesNSme
— Ariella Plachta (@AriPlachta) October 15, 2019
LAUSD local district Superintendent Joseph Nacorda responded to teachers’ claims with a statement Tuesday saying that maintenance crews returned to the 10 schools inside the fire evacuation area both Monday night and Tuesday morning.
“Shifting winds may bring smoke into our community, and we will continue to provide masks for students and staff who request them,” he said in a statement. “We know this has been a challenging time for our students, employees and families, and we thank everyone for their continued understanding and support.”
The fight over the district’s response to the Saddleridge fire began Friday, when union leaders lambasted the district for keeping the bulk of San Fernando Valley schools. Smoke blanked the Valley that day, prompting advisory warnings of dangerous air quality, as road closures choked traffic on multiple major roads and highways.
Ten Valley schools near the fire area were closed Friday, and the rest were placed on an early dismissal schedule. Those schools also underwent ‘shelter-in-place’ procedures, which keeps students and educators inside campus buildings in emergency conditions.
LAUSD school board representative Scott Schmerelson, whose district is in the Valley, echoed the union’s sentiment. He said he believed all schools in the region should have closed, like nearby charter schools and schools at the Simi Valley Unified School District.
“The charters are all closed in the Valley. Are their kids and staff more important than our kids and staff? Is it about money or is it about safety?” he asked on Twitter, suggesting the district is concerned with preserving the state funding it receives per-pupil at school. Charter schools receive LAUSD funding but are not administered by the district.
Schools Police Chief Steve Zipperman, however, defended the district’s limited closures in a Friday statement. He said the district made the limited closure decisions in “constant contact” with the fire department.
“As conditions changed, out of an abundance of caution, we implemented an early-dismissal schedule for all Valley schools and a few schools located in the fire area in Local District West,” he said. “Los Angeles Unified continues to work closely with the Los Angeles Fire Department and our other public-safety partners to ensure the well being of our students, employees and families.”