School’s out, for wildfire

PG&E’s power shutoff kept more than 130,000 students at home

Charred branches lay behind the playground at Cobb Mountain Elementary County on Aug. 15. The fire-ravaged schools in Lake County are among many closed last week as PG&E cut power to avoid sparking wildfires.

Charred branches lay behind the playground at Cobb Mountain Elementary County on Aug. 15. The fire-ravaged schools in Lake County are among many closed last week as PG&E cut power to avoid sparking wildfires.

Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s unprecedented power shutdown kept at least 130,000 students out of school last week as red flag conditions and high winds blew across Northern California, and the state’s largest utility attempted to keep from sparking another catastrophic wildfire.

More than 320 schools in 19 counties—including Sonoma, Napa, Contra Costa and Alameda—shut their doors, a student population roughly the size of the city of Santa Clara, according to a CalMatters tally. The closures represent one front among many being impacted in this era of climate-fueled natural disaster.

They were announced as PG&E notified an unprecedented 800,000 Northern California customers that it would be cutting power to large swaths of its service area under a new program aimed at preempting a repeat of last year's devastating Camp Fire, which was linked to malfunctioning PG&E equipment. The safety measure is fairly routine in much of Southern California, but is new to the half of the state that relies on PG&E to keep the lights on and it left cities from Bakersfield to the Bay Area scrambling to cope with the possibility of days without electricity.

Using 2018-19 state enrollment data, CalMatters calculated that about 131,000 students in nearly 70 school districts were affected by emergency closures. Some school systems said their schools would essentially remain closed until the power is turned back on. Dozens more schools, including in Placer County, warned parents to be on the lookout for early-morning emails notifying them that classes there might also be canceled.

In its impact on California students, the rolling outage is expected to be second only to the “Great Blackout” of September 2011, in which botched maintenance on a transmission line near Yuma, Ariz., caused a cascade of power failures throughout the Southwest. That outage forced two dozen school districts primarily in San Diego County to close for a day, impacting 350,000 kids at the time, according to CalMatters' database of reported school closures.

However, PG&E has made clear that such preemptive outages will be a “new normal” for Northern California, as the utility changes its policy to reflect a wildfire liability that already has prompted it to seek bankruptcy protection.

Last November, more than 1 million students were kept home from school due to poor air quality sparked by massive fires in northern and southern California. Wildfires are the leading cause of emergency closures among California's schools and have taken a particularly devastating toll on public schools over the last four years.

California schools have lost more than 21,000 days of instruction due to wildfires since 2002, but more than half of those lost days have occurred since 2015, CalMatters found. Schools that have been especially impacted by recent megafire—including several schools in Sonoma and Lake counties—closed Wednesday. That included those in the Middletown Unified district, which has lost 25 days of instruction, the equivalent of five weeks of class time, over the last four years due to wildfire.

In less ravaged areas, the situation was fluid. Roger Stock, superintendent of Rocklin Unified in Placer County, told families the evening of Oct. 8 that half a dozen schools in the district were likely to close, but later determined that schools could safely remain open.

Lisette Estrella-Henderson, superintendent of the Solano County Office of Education, told families in a note that county schools “will continue to operate to the extent possible,” but added that “parents should consider sending students to school with breakfast and lunch items that do not require refrigeration or heat, as our menu options may be limited.”