Thomas Fire forces longest closure of Santa Barbara schools in 100 years

Not since the Spanish Flu epidemic that killed millions of people around the world in 1918 have schools in Santa Barbara County been ordered closed for this long.

The Santa Barbara Unified School District on Sunday chose to close schools for the entire week leading into winter break, as did many other districts on Santa Barbara County’s South Coast, because of the threat of the ever-growing Thomas Fire and unhealthy air pollution.

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The blaze started Dec. 4 near Santa Paula in Ventura County and had burned west into the mountains above the Carpinteria Valley as of Tuesday.

Thousands of people have been evacuated and the unhealthy air pollution has hit the region for almost a week.

Santa Barbara Unified leaders decided to cancel classes last Thursday and Friday in addition to this entire week, and the seven-day closure is the longest one in almost a century. The district serves more than 15,000 students.

“We’ve obviously closed for fire, smoke in the past but never more than a day or two here or there,” said Kate Parker, president of the school board. “Most of our extended fire, smoke events, like the Zaca Fire, happened in the summer, while other recent ones like the Jesusita or Tea Fires were incredibly damaging but brought under control relatively quickly.”

Santa Barbara Unified’s administration chose to cancel classes, including after school and evening events, to protect the health of thousands of children, but other factors contributed to the decision — including the fact that about 320 district employees live in Carpinteria and Ventura County.

The closure was announced after Superintendent Cary Matsuoka spoke at a community meeting Sunday and said local superintendents had been meeting with each other a few times a day, and then every six hours, during the Thomas Fire.

“We have made the difficult decision to close Santa Barbara Unified for the entire week of Dec. 11-15,” he said in a written statement.

District spokeswoman Lauren Bianchi Klemann said the closure through winter break was “a difficult decision.”

Students won’t have to spend extra days in school to make up for the lost instructional minutes.

The Santa Barbara County Education Office has applied for a waiver for school districts from the California Department of Education. This would be the fourth waiver in the past 15 years due to a natural disaster such as a fire, flood or earthquake.

“The California Department of Education will be waiving the required instructional minutes to all of our districts, as it’s done with other districts in the same situation,” Parker said.

“That does mean that our children will be missing seven days of school that our teachers had counted on. It’s very hard to change calendars or daily schedules when this type of thing happens, since families and staff often make decisions a full year in advance about summer work, study and travel that cannot be changed. But we definitely need to have a conversation about providing extra learning opportunities for kids.”

Click here for updated school closure information.

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