By Ricardo Cano| CalMatters

As climate-fueled natural disasters and power shutoffs have eroded the school year in an unprecedented swath of California, a lawmaker in wildfire country is proposing making up the lost instructional time for the most severely impacted students by funding “disaster relief” summer schools.

Formally dubbed the “Disaster Relief Instructional Recovery Program,” Senate Bill 884 by Democratic Sen. Bill Dodd of Napa would give schools the funding to make up instructional days lost to fires, natural disasters and attendant blackouts.

School districts would not be required to participate in the program, and neither students or teachers would be required to participate in disaster relief summer school if their school district opts into the program. District and charter schools would be eligible to participate if they lost five or more instructional days to disasters in one school year or, cumulatively, “at least 10 instructional days in two out of three consecutive school years,” according to the bill’s text.

The legislation, introduced Thursday, follows reporting and data published last year by CalMatters that detailed the heavy toll that climate-driven fires – and the power shutoffs aimed at preventing them – have taken on students, teachers and public schools.

This school year alone, fires and utility power shutoffs forced emergency closures in more than 1,500 public schools across 34 counties that affected more than 800,000 kids, according to school-closure data gathered by CalMatters.

Though it isn’t required by state law, school districts can voluntarily budget emergency days into their academic calendars — a strategy the state Department of Education advised in the wake of this year’s widespread disruptions.

But local officials overseeing schools most affected by disasters say they don’t have the finances to make up the days — and sometimes weeks — of lost instruction.

In a phone interview, Dodd said his bill would help alleviate the negative academic impact on students who miss school because of fires, disasters and power shutoffs.

“This is something that I think does impact students adversely and we have to provide some sort of framework,” Dodd said. Though he does not yet have a cost estimate, he said the state needs to step up support for schools and students whose education, in some cases, is now being annually disrupted “through no fault of their own.”

During the fall of the current 2019-20 school year, more than 360 schools closed for five school days or longer, with some students in Sonoma County losing as many as 15 instructional days – equivalent to three weeks of class time – due to mandatory wildfire evacuations and power shutoffs.

CalMatters identified at least 480 California public schools that have lost 10 or more instructional days for fire-related issues since the 2017-18 term, and thus would be eligible for disaster relief summer school under the bill’s provisions.

In California, school districts can apply for attendance waivers through the state Department of Education that protect them from financial penalty for having to shut down schools in the wake of disasters. However, while these waivers excuse schools for not meeting the state’s 180-day instructional requirement, the state does not require districts to make up those lost days.

In addition to creating a protocol and funding for make-up classes, Dodd’s proposal would add public safety power shutoffs to the list of disaster-related emergencies that let districts close schools without being financially penalized by the state.

Schools in some counties routinely have closed for fire-related issues in recent years, from mandatory evacuations to poor air quality and, more recently, utility power shutoffs.

Some schools in Sonoma County, for instance, have lost nearly 40 cumulative instructional days due to fires, disasters and outages. And some schools in Lake County have lost instructional time every school year since 2015 — the year of the devastating Valley Fire — due to fires.

Steve Herrington, superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education and a proponent of SB 884, said these disruptions have set students back academically and have created lingering traumatic effects for those who lost homes or evacuated during the 2017 Tubbs Fire and last year’s Kincade Fire.

“My issue is equity,” Herrington said Thursday. “Students need to have educational opportunities, and if we’re to produce a student population that’s competitive in this environment, we need to provide them a minimum of 180 days of instruction.”

Dodd said CalMatters’ data on emergency school closures highlighted “how big of a problem it was” for schools across California.

“This is state legislation. We’re always willing to run local bills that protect people in our district, but knowing and understanding the gravity of the situation and how these problems were statewide, that really drove our discussion and interest of it in our office,” Dodd said.

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

The author wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

Header Photo: Sen. Bill Dodd discusses wildfire related powershutoffs in American Canyon in 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters