Brett W. McFadden: The toll and challenges of emergency school closure days
When our community experiences PG&E Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS), everyone is affected.
In this column, I will explain how the PSPS outages impact our schools, students, families and staff. I will also describe potential modifications the Nevada Joint Union High School District is considering to lessen the severity of disruptions caused by power shutoffs.
What surprised me most was the emotional toll the PSPS events have had on many in our community. It’s one thing to survive without power, with all its attendant inconveniences. But it’s another thing to live with uncertainty day by day, hour by hour, worrying about something so basic and taken for granted as electricity.
We soon realized students, and in some cases staff, were not ready to resume “business as usual” as soon as classes resumed. We needed to provide time for adjustment, whether it was talking with counselors and others about difficulties encountered during the outages or simply making showers, food, and services available to families and students. Just as any family needs time to regroup or adjust after adversity, so did our extended educational family.
So far, we have lost five instructional days due to PG&E power outages. This is an unprecedented number considering we are only four months into the school year. And this number could get worse. Winter is on the horizon bringing the prospect of additional lost days due to snow.
The recent PSPS events and corresponding school closure days are taking a toll on instruction and student services. Our students lost the continuity of their learning and activities. Teachers must now significantly alter their lesson plans and play “catch up.” Our dedicated teachers, staff, and administrators are certainly up to the task, but this has added additional challenges to already stressful and demanding jobs.
The high school district, along with our partner elementary districts, will seek waivers from the state that will allow us to receive Average Daily Attendance funding for the lost school days beyond the two Snow Days annually incorporated into our school calendar. These processes are taking place in the face of more potential PSPS episodes.
Another challenge we quickly discovered was the impact PSPS days had on the district’s administrative and operational demands. Normal deadlines and state reporting requirements remain, but with less full days to get them done. Most of the district’s year-round staff worked through the power shutoffs, often in the dark and cold. Reports were due, facilities had to be maintained, and deadlines had to be met even without electricity.
A great example of this was our technology services. Our technology staff maintained the district’s technology hub, which serves every school in western Nevada County (our high school district is the only one in the state tasked with maintaining the IT capabilities of every local school). A permanent gas-powered generator and the diligence of our IT personnel kept things humming even in the dark.
The district’s athletic programs were also adversely affected. Team training and practices were changed, curtailed, or even cancelled. Competitions slated during the power shutoffs had to be rescheduled within already tightly-packed sports schedules. For example, when swimming pool pumps can’t operate, the water gets out of balance. It takes a few days of treatment after power is restored and the pumps are fired back up for the pool water to become safe to swim in again.
Our facilities staff worked long hours before, during, and after the PSPS events. The district rented a large truck trailer – half freezer, half refrigerator – in which to store foodstuff from our three major high schools. Breakfast and lunch products at Bear River, Silver Springs and Nevada Union were loaded into the truck and we were able to salvage most of them.
“It was quite a bit of labor, and we had five to six staff members working on it,” Director of Facilities and Construction Jordan Kohler explains. “That was a lot of product to move in and move out and get it ready in case school resumed in the morning.”
There are other unexpected ramifications of PG&E’s outage program. After 24 hours without power, all our fire alarm batteries die. Facilities staff must perform a “Fire Watch,” required by the Fire Marshall when a building is occupied and the fire alarm hasn’t functioned properly. A staff member must survey the spaces every hour to ensure there is no fire. Staff must also recharge and reset the fire alarm systems.
I’d like to express my appreciation for Durham Transportation and its staff that provide bus service for our district. Durham General Manager Lisa Smith participates in evening and early morning conference calls if PSPS events are possible. When a decision is made to cancel classes, Lisa and her team must telephone up to 80 affected bus drivers. When Durham itself loses power, its mechanics cannot perform preventive maintenance and backlogs can develop. Its landline telephones also quit working.
Durham is an integral and valued part of our district team. Lisa tells me, “The biggest impact for us is our communication with the public, our customers and staff, as well as the loss of income for our drivers.”
On a personal note, I felt as if I were in a frustrating and “no-win” situation. Details about planned PG&E shutoffs and line reenergizing timelines were sketchy. With classroom temperatures dipping into the low 40’s, even if PG&E notified us that power would be restored sometime in the morning, that might not allow enough time to warm classrooms, perform safety checks, and alert parents, students and staff. My goal is always to provide an optimal learning environment for students. Therefore, I chose to err on the side of safety and cancel classes when prudent. But these decisions are far from science, and closer to guess work.
Moving forward, the high school district will continue its due diligence to prepare for future PSPS episodes. The school board and staff have initiated efforts to develop action plans that will mitigate and address the challenges brought on by PSPS events. If classroom temperatures can be maintained at levels comfortable enough to accommodate teaching during power shutoffs, we could employ curriculum that is not dependent on computers or other technology that requires electricity.
We will also look to fine-tune the district’s school calendar to integrate additional closure days, which we are now calling “Emergency School Closure Days” – a term that covers PSPS events as well as heavy snow accumulations, dangerously thick smoke from wildfires, etc. My friend and colleague, Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Scott Lay, concurs.
“The first thing all schools are doing is to look at adding ‘no power’ days to the 2020-2021 calendar, up to seven total,” Scott tells me. “In the short term, we will ensure we have generators available to run critical operations and make sure critical communication systems are fully functioning.”
We will continue to work closely with Nevada County’s Office of Emergency Services and PG&E to obtain the most accurate information in a timely manner. In this way, the district can prepare for outages, schedule or cancel classes as necessary, and reduce the uncertainty and associated emotional toll on students, parents, and staff.
The sudden onslaught of PG&E’s power outage strategy has certainly rocked our community and changed our paradigms. But I am confident that we will do more than just survive this “New Normal.” Nevada County is strong and resilient. Together, we will persist in our efforts to find a way to thrive despite power disruptions, and ensure our students receive the high quality education they deserve.
Nevada Joint Union High School District Superintendent Brett W. McFadden writes a monthly column for The Union. He has more than 28 years of education leadership and policy experience statewide. Freelance writer Lorraine Jewett contributed to this column.
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