PG&E Power Shutoffs Keeping Over 130,000 Kids Home From School

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Charred branches and ground behind the playground at Cobb Mountain Elementary on Aug. 15, 2019.  (Anne Wernikoff/CalMatters)

PG&E's unprecedented power shutdown is keeping more than 130,000 California students out of school for at least one day this week.

More than 320 schools in 19 counties, including Sonoma, Napa, Contra Costa and Alameda, shut their doors Wednesday or announced they would be shutting down Thursday, a population roughly the size of the city of Santa Clara, according to a CalMatters tally.

The closures were announced as red flag conditions and high winds bear down on Northern California, prompting the state's largest utility to notify roughly 800,000 customers that it would be cutting power to large swaths of its service area. The move is part of a new program aimed at preempting a repeat of last year’s devastating Camp Fire, which was linked to malfunctioning PG&E equipment.

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The safety measure — fairly routine in much of Southern California but new to the half of the state that largely relies on PG&E to keep the lights on — 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 approximately 131,000 students in nearly 70 school districts were either affected by emergency closures Wednesday or will be affected Thursday. Some school systems said their schools would essentially remain closed until the power is turned back on.

Dozens more schools, including sites in Placer and Kern counties, warned parents to be on the lookout for early morning emails notifying them that classes might also be canceled.

In terms of its impact on California students, the rolling outage is expected to be second only to the “Great Blackout” of September 2011, when botched maintenance on a transmission line near Yuma, Arizona, 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 sort of 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 megafires — including several schools in Sonoma and Lake counties — closed Wednesday. That included Middletown Unified School District, which has lost 25 days of instruction, the equivalent of five weeks of class time, over the last four years.

In less ravaged areas, the situation was fluid. Roger Stock, superintendent of Rocklin Unified School District in Placer County, told families Tuesday evening that half a dozen schools in the district "are likely to be closed Wednesday," but later determined that schools could safely remain open this week.

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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."

The San Leandro Unified School District in Alameda County closed all of its schools Wednesday. Though some San Leandro schools are not expected to lose power, superintendent Mike McLaughlin, in a note, told families that it would shutter all campuses "due to the unforeseen nature of this event."

"Although the PSPS may not affect all district schools, safety concerns for students who would be traveling to unaffected schools through areas of San Leandro which may be out of power has dictated closure of all SLUSD schools," McLaughlin wrote.

Updated Oct. 9, 2019, to reflect new closure information.

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