Closing Schools and Moving Finals Due to Thomas Fire

A Look at Our Education System’s Response to the Wildfire

UCSB students carried forth early on in the Thomas Fire (below), but by the time flames could be seen above the Santa Barbara cityscape (above), finals had been rescheduled and Westmont College in Montecito had become a staging area for firefighters.

A steady progression of setbacks to normal operating procedures culminated on December 10 as Santa Barbara Unified School District Superintendent Cary Matsuoka closed classes districtwide until January.

The district’s first concern was deteriorating air quality, he explained, followed closely by nearby evacuation notices, a drop in the number of district employees able to show up for work, and finally, the fire’s arrival to Santa Barbara County. Now, there’s a fairly extensive cleanup project on the horizon before campuses reopen, planned for January 2, 2018.

“We’d been making this decision as a region,” he added. “The superintendents had been talking to each other every day.” South Coast districts that are closed until January include Santa Barbara Unified, Carpinteria Unified, Cold Spring, Montecito Union, Goleta Union, Hope Elementary, and Vista del Mar. Matsuoka said that under these circumstances, schools do not need to make up lost days.

The fire also disrupted finals week at Santa Barbara City College. “Some students weren’t able to take their finals, and their professors have been communicating with them about what that means,” said Luz Reyes-Martin, the college’s public information officer. “[Those final exams] won’t be rescheduled, and the faculty is working with individual classes on how they are going to handle it.” In many cases, she added, a student’s course grade will be based on already-completed assignments. The new term starts January 16, 2018.

In response to considerable pressure from UCSB student leaders, university chancellor Henry Yang canceled finals week, which was scheduled to begin December 11. Final exams will be rescheduled for the week of January 8, 2018, pushing back winter quarter until Tuesday, January 16, 2018. Yang cited fears about power outages, confusion around Santa Barbara County’s “false late-night evacuation notice,” and concerns about poor air quality and transportation. “Continuation of scheduled exams has become untenable,” he wrote in a campus-wide email.

President Gayle Beebe said Westmont College’s wildfire emergency plan predates the 2008 Tea Fire, which destroyed eight buildings and 15 faculty homes as 1,000 students sheltered in place inside Murchison Gymnasium. Members of the college’s grounds crew are trained volunteer firefighters, equipped with a 2,400-gallon water tanker truck and a smaller vehicle toting 350 gallons. This time around, Beebe said, “Everybody was out by noon on Sunday [December 10], and on Monday we became a staging area [for firefighters].” As of midmorning Wednesday, Thomas Fire had not reached campus.

Westmont finals would have started December 12, and professors have “been so good about coming up with alternative ways for students to complete the semester,” Beebe said. Take-home or online finals have been options, depending on the class; some professors are allowing students’ pre-final performance to stand as their final mark. Westmont’s spring semester starts January 8, 2018.


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