Thomas Fire press conference at Carpinteria High School (Dec. 7, 2017)
Paul Wellman

Public and private schools in Santa Barbara are typically thought of as two very different entities, but in the wake of the natural disasters that hit the county this winter, they’ve found new friends in one another.

As the Thomas Fire arrived in Santa Barbara in December, schools throughout the South Coast closed because of unhealthy air quality. When deadly debris flows hit Montecito in January, schools that were not affected by the disaster opened their campuses to displaced students and teachers looking for a classroom.

“The [best] thing you want to do for kids to help them is to bring back normalcy as quickly as possible,” said Suzanne Grimmesey, a spokesperson for Santa Barbara County’s Department of Behavioral Wellness. “So to not only be back in school, and be back in class, and be back with your teacher, gives kids a routine.”

Schools can be a safe haven for many students in the county. Nearly 60 percent of students in Santa Barbara County qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and the food provided may be their only consistent meal of the day.

This is also vital for their parents’ economic benefit, according to Grimmesey and Ellen Barger, an assistant superintendent for the Santa Barbara County Department of Education. When children are forced to stay home, some parents struggle to find adequate daycare, taking time off work to care for their kids.

By finding temporary spaces for classes to be held, parents can get to their jobs, file insurance claims, and replace personal documents that might have been lost during the natural disasters. Grimmesey and Barger commended the public and private schools’ “creative sharing” and “donation of instructional materials” to make life normal again for thousands of students.

“Everyone made everyone else’s children as much of a priority as their own,” Barger said. “Everyone feels this sort of responsibility.”

Going forward, it’s not about the drills that they may have or the emergency preparedness plans for potential storms. According to Barger and Grimmesey, the open line of communication in case of future natural disasters is irreplaceable, giving families a “sense of comfort in knowing that planning has taken place to assure the safety of students.”


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