Assemblymember Patrick O'Donnell walks across the floor on September 10, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Track California schools closed by climate disasters, says lawmaker, citing ‘the times we’re living in’

In the wake of a CalMatters report on the toll climate-driven disasters are taking on education, Assemblyman Patrick O'Donnell is proposing AB 2126, which would publish real-time information on school closures statewide.

Assemblymember Patrick O'Donnell crosses the floor on September 10, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Recent fires, power shutoffs and natural disasters have forced thousands of California public schools to temporarily shut down because of unsafe learning conditions. Now, a state legislator wants the state to track and publish real-time information on school closures across California to help respond to future emergencies.  

Under Assembly Bill 2126, introduced last week by Democratic Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell of Long Beach, the California Department of Education would be required to collect and publish school-closure information through a web application by the start of the 2022-23 school year. The app would detail which schools are closed, the reasons for closure and how long a school remained closed. 

Currently, the state is not required to gather information on when schools have to close for emergencies. And though local school districts notify parents and their communities of emergency closures online or through phone calls, they are not required to report closures to the state unless they submit attendance waiver requests to avoid state funding penalties for not meeting instructional time requirements.

O’Donnell, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, said his proposal is “a reflection of the times we’re living in, and we need to respond to them to ensure the safety of California students.”

O’Donnell’s bill is the latest example of California’s attempts to respond to the increasingly frequent impact that climate-driven disaster is having on core institutions, such as public education. 

The legislation follows reporting and data published by CalMatters detailing the heavy toll fires, disasters and blackouts have taken on the state’s students, educators and schools. Since 2015, fires worsened by climate change and attendant power shutoffs have disrupted public education more often, more widely and for longer periods than in previous years, CalMatters found in an analysis of nearly two decades of reported school closures.

The primary goal of AB 2126 is to provide emergency responders and state and federal agencies reliable, up-to-date information on whether public schools are open, O’Donnell said. Responders frequently turn to school campuses during disasters to serve as evacuation centers or operation bases for emergency responders and state and federal agencies.

“In emergency situations, there’s no efficient way for emergency personnel such as law enforcement and state and federal agencies to determine if a school is open or closed, which impedes emergency response,” O’Donnell said. 

“Emergency responders need to know if a school is open or closed. They need to know if it’s occupied so they can determine if an evacuation is necessary or if the school facility could be used as a temporary shelter or housing for emergency responders.”

Though fire-related emergencies make up the majority of closures, schools in California also have had to shut down due to crumbling infrastructure and school safety threats. If approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor, the web application would also provide data for researchers and officials to further study the impacts of disasters and emergencies on public schools.

O’Donnell’s bill is the latest example of California’s attempts to respond to the increasingly frequent impact that climate-driven disaster is having on core institutions, such as public education. 

A state senator last month introduced a proposal, Senate Bill 884, that would give schools funding to make up the days – and sometimes weeks – of instruction lost to disasters, fires and the utility power shutoffs aimed at preventing them.

Last June, a group of legislators and public agencies created guidelines for school districts to consider when deciding emergency closures due to hazardous air quality. Those guidelines were prompted in part by schools’ experiences during the Camp and Woolsey fires in 2018 that kept more than 1 million students home as poisonous smoke blanketed large swaths of the state.

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