Published Jan. 29, 2023
BY SHAYLA DUTTA
California’s recent storms left some families in Carmel Unified School District searching for power, others seeking shelter and safety, and the district itself looking for a clearly delineated response to communicate to the community when opening schools is not a safe option.
CUSD closed its sites Jan. 3 and 4 in addition to three days during the week of Jan. 9, two of which were school days, due to flooding, evacuation and navigation concerns. While closed, according to CUSD’s chief operating officer Dan Paul, the sites suffered minimal damage absent a few fences and trees impacted by wind.
“We made the decision to cancel school on Monday,” Superintendent Ted Knight says. “It was kind of at that point we realized the district really didn’t have a lot of current processes in place.”
On Monday, Jan. 9, Carmel River Elementary School was in a mandatory evacuation zone, Captain Cooper Elementary School’s surrounding area was flooded, Carmel High School’s access was limited by a fallen tree on U.S. Highway 1, and multiple sites were without power. Carmel Middle School and the district office would soon be added to the list of evacuated sites that helped maintain the closure through Wednesday of that week.
When schools reopened for Thursday and Friday, many staff and students were still unable to attend due to hazardous travel conditions, including the threat of the Salinas River flooding. Friday saw as few as one custodian per site that day, although according to CHS assistant principal Craig Tuana, CHS was able to cover all the classes, even without absent teachers, by utilizing substitutes as well as other certified district personnel.
These issues, combined with the knowledge that many CUSD families were then evacuating their homes or without power, forced the district to act quickly. Through a series of Zoom meetings, a new system of “postures” and communication was devised.
“You don’t want to make a decision too early, right? If you decide, ‘Oh, let’s cancel school tomorrow,’ and then you wake up in the morning and the sun’s out and everything’s fine, people aren’t going to be happy,” Knight says of the new communication procedure, which standardized district posture announcements at 5 p.m. the prior night, 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. the morning of the day in question.
The postures themselves include a district closure, in which all sites are closed and the presence of essential staff such as maintenance and custodians are determined by safety; an all-schools closure, in which transporting and managing students might be safe but staff may still be able to work; and an individual school closure, which may not even be related to a natural disaster.
According to Knight, all three have yet to be clearly defined and written out and are subject to change. They may even be adjusted to include more postures to address a wider range of situations.
On the whole, the community adapted readily to these plans, its resilience tested and strengthened through COVID-19 and 2020’s wildfires which even halted online learning. But why wasn’t the district ready after those trials, and what changed this time?
According to the Superintendent, a small district coupled with several changes in administrators can give rise to a situation in which protocols for these situations are in place, but are person-dependent: only one person or a couple people have the necessary experience and knowledge concerning a specific issue. Over time, those procedures leave along with employees or are lost otherwise.
On top of that, a Jan. 3 mix-up with essential employees, as explained by two CUSD custodians, illustrated the necessity for clearer communications. Several employees received confusing and conflicting messages regarding coming to work, despite dangerous road conditions for many, and were not initially guaranteed paid time off without using personal vacation days.
Although the immediate disaster appears to have passed, Knight hopes to keep expanding the emergency measures so the district is better prepared for any situation. The administrator mentions the possibility of a delayed-start schedule for days where travel is hazardous, which a custodian agreed would be helpful for driving conditions in the winter, as well as an online option for campus-specific issues.
As the frequency of severe weather events in California increases, storm-preparedness will become all the more essential not only for the district, but for families, their homes and citizens all across the state.