empty hallway

Local school administrators have been meeting with the Sonoma County Office of Education and with each other to discuss what they should do in the event of looming PG&E power shut-offs.

Schools have dealt with power outages before, of course, but not on the scale of the shut-offs predicted by PG&E as a part of their Public Safety Power Shutoff program (PSPS).

“We are being told that all of us may be shut off for one to five days at a time, up to six times per year,” Sebastopol Union Superintendent Linda Irving wrote in a letter to parents about what schools may be facing.

“It’s going to be a hardship for residents as well as public entities,” Irving said.

PG&E has said it may declare a power shut-off under the following combination of conditions:

  • A Red Flag Warning declared by the National Weather Service
  • Low humidity levels, generally 20% and below
  • Forecasted sustained winds, generally above 25 mph and wind gusts in excess of approximately 45 mph.
  • Condition of dry fuel on the ground and live vegetation
  • On-the-ground information from PG&E staff

The Sonoma County Office of Education held a meeting for school administrators last month about the ramifications of PG&E’s power shut-offs. According to Irving, there’s a consensus among most west county schools about what to do on a practical level.

“Most districts in west county are doing the same thing,” she said. “If power is turned off when kids are here in school, then we’ll just carry on to the end of the day. But if we wake up and there’s no power, we don’t anticipate opening the doors.”

Jennie Bruneman, the facilities manager for West Sonoma County Union High School District, said her district has the same policy.

Dealing with shut-off days

At the end of September, the high school district invited parents to a special board meeting to review the district’s plan regarding PG&E’s power shut-off days.

WSCUHSD Superintendent Toni Beal noted that schools face three types of challenges: practical (What to do when the power goes out? How to get power, etc.); financial (How to get reimbursed by the state for lost days?);  and academic: How to make sure students who lose instructional hours to power shut-offs don’t fall behind academically?

Bruneman seemed confident about the practicalities of getting power to a school during a power outage.  Last year, because of an accident with a local transformer, El Molino High School had no power for almost two weeks at the beginning of the school year.

“We were able to provide generator power there for two weeks while that got fixed,” Bruneman said. “That was an interesting two weeks, I’ll tell you.”

Bruneman said the district could have generators on standby for power-shutoff events.

“We’d likely have to have four per campus — very, very large generators with lots of cables running to the electrical panels.”

Like many people in Sonoma County, some school districts are wondering if solar might be a better long-term solution.

“Micro-gridding (a local energy network powered by renewables) is a long-term solution that we can definitely investigate, but you have to have the storage capacity for the batteries,” Bruneman said. “There’s a lot that goes into that, and it’s not inexpensive. But it’s something I think we need to look at as a district. It’s a conversation that I’ve heard other districts with solar are having.”

Losing money and time

The financial ramifications of a power shut-off are trickier.  Any day during the school year that children are out of school is a day that schools are losing money — about $50 per child per day in ADA (average daily attendance) funds.

PG&E has made it clear that it isn’t liable for any financial losses due to the shut-offs. The California Department of Education doesn’t consider PG&E power shut-off days to be a recognized emergency and so it won’t reimburse schools for lost ADA.

“Right now, we don't believe that there will be any ability for us to recoup those lost days,” Beal said.

After the wildfires and floods, some schools built emergency days into their yearly calendars that they could use if need be at the end of the year. The high school district has two emergency days built into its calendar. Ditto for Sebastopol Union.

“But if it’s over two days…” Beal shrugged. “It’s new territory.”

Interestingly, the education piece — how to keep students up the speed academically if they’re missing several days of school — received the least amount of attention, perhaps because the high school district seems pretty confident that it could keep the power on via generators.

At the board meeting, there was some vague talk of “packets” and “online education” —  then someone realized that most desktops in people’s homes would be inoperable.

“Books!” someone suggested. (Now there’s a novel idea.)

Less than two weeks after this board meeting, the lights really did go out — not in west county, fortunately — but in much of Sonoma County and the Bay Area. Now school administrators will be studying what lessons were learned from that experience.

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