Day 6

As wildfires burn, schools learn what it's like to teach in the dark

Despite a power outage, a high school teacher in Walnut Creek, Calif., was determined to teach her students. She describes a cascade of misfortunes that have become "the new normal" for education as wildfires burn across the state.

'The students felt like this was a little ridiculous,' high school teacher Rosie Reid says

Rosie Reid, who teaches English at Northgate High School in Walnut Creek, Calif., snapped this photo of her students, who were forced to read by the light of their cellphones because power grids have been shut down to prevent more wildfires from burning around the state. (Rosie Reid/Twitter)

As wildfires raged through swaths of California this week, forcing power companies to cut off electricity, a group of students in the San Francisco Bay Area huddled around the light of a few cellphones, trying to read a book in their otherwise pitch-black classroom.

"I think the students felt like this was a little ridiculous; like, no actual learning was going to happen in these circumstances," said Rosie Reid, an English teacher at Northgate High School in Walnut Creek, Calif., where smoke from nearby wildfires has clouded the sky.

"It almost seemed like a charade of pretending to have school," she told Day 6

While fires around Sonoma County and Los Angeles have destroyed buildings and forced tens of thousands of people from their homes, Northgate staff are teaching others to cope with a new reality: how to run a school when there is no power, no cellphone service and no internet.

"We often think about climate change and how it's affecting the oceans, or how it's affecting the weather, but we're not necessarily thinking about the day-to-day impact on our professions and thinking about our education," said Reid.

In her dark, windowless classroom, where the electricity had been turned off, Reid described trying to open the door to the hallway by a crack to allow some natural light in.

When that failed, she asked students to read using their cellphone flashlights. But with the power out, not everyone had a cellphone that was charged up.

"I did attempt to take my students outside to do … kinesthetic activity," she said. "But it was just too smoky, so we couldn't do that."

With the electricity down — and with it, the fire alarm — the fire marshal eventually paid Northgate a visit to call the school day off.

With no cellphone service and no internet, however, students, staff and parents struggled to reach each other.

"We had to find someone's cellphone who had a hot spot that was working in order to be able to notify parents that school had been cancelled," Reid said.

Responsibility of power companies

Stephanie Yamkovenko, who lives in Santa Cruz, Calif., about an hour away from the wildfires, said she believes power companies like Pacific Gas & Electric should be responsible for having a backup plan during these outages. 

PG&E equipment that wasn't de-energized may have ignited a massive blaze in Sonoma County wine country that has destroyed 133 homes, according to The Associated Press.

The company has since been staging sweeping blackouts, in the face of angry condemnation by state officials and consumers.

Yamkovenko lives in an area where the power has been cut off, leaving her without cellphone service. That means she has no way of receiving an evacuation notice by phone or internet if nearby wildfires become a threat.

"If there is an evacuation order, the only way that I would get it is if someone came and knocked on my front door," she said.

"It's unacceptable that we won't be able to receive evacuation orders because the cellphone towers don't have backup power."

Alex DeLeon with Engine 342 of the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit of the U.S. Forest Service, watches the Kincade fire burn on a ridge between Lake and Sonoma counties, as he stands watch at a home above Knights Valley, Calif., on Oct. 29. Wildfires in the state have forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes. (Philip Pacheco/AFP/Getty Images)

It's not the first time wildfires have gotten in the way of everyday life in California though. Reid said it's been the same story every October for the last several years.

But without the proper resources, she said it's difficult to keep her classroom going through the power outages that accompany the wildfire season.

"There's just so much that goes into our changing climate that we often don't even think about until we see that it's happening," she said.

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