M. Terry / SFVS

Lisa Bennett, special education instructor at Van Gogh Charter School, said not enough was done to clean up the school from the Saddleridge Fire.

Sloan Ashley, was standing quietly in front of Van Gogh Charter elementary school in Granada Hills with her son Zach while dozens of teachers from that school and others in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) were holding a protest rally on Tuesday, Oct. 15.

But this event had nothing to do with labor negotiations and union contracts. The protest this time had to do with conditions at the school following the Saddleridge Fire that began in the northern part of the San Fernando Valley on Friday, Oct, 11; a fire that has gone on to burn more than 8,000 acres, damage or destroy more than 100 structures and was still considered less than 50 percent contained on Wednesday morning, Oct. 16.

Van Gogh Charter — which was closed on Friday as part of community area evacuations —  fortunately was not structurally damaged or destroyed. But instructors at the school, and parents like Ashley said the conditions of lingering smoke smell and ash still covering structures and the grounds, should have been enough of a deterrent to keep from re-opening the school on Monday, Oct. 14.

Ashley, a landscape developer who lives in Shadow Hills — “we won a lottery to get into (Van Gogh)” — was in total agreement with that assessment, saying she had to come pick up her son shortly after he arrived at the school.

“I brought him back on Monday. He stayed in the class for 20 minutes, and I came back and got him,” said Ashley, adding that Zach is asthmatic. “He said it was really bad, the smell. I came in and got him. His clothes smelled of ash, his hair was saturated. I took him home.

“This is ridiculous. (The school) should be properly cleaned. It’s ridiculous that we are standing here right now.”

She was not the only parent to express outrage. Jacqueline Westman, a Granada Hills restaurant server and manager who has two children in school here, said even though she had been told by the district that the school had been cleaned over the weekend, there was still much being done.

“I’ve seen them out here, after the fact. I can see them raking and dusting, smoke coming up,” Westman said. “My son came back and his class was full of ashes. They had informed us the school had been cleaned up but that clearly was not the case. My daughter has epilepsy, so stress and things like that can bring on seizures. It was a concern for me to bring her back, not knowing if the school is safe enough for her, healthwise.”

Lisa Bennett, a special education teacher at Van Gogh, said she had to remove her 12 students from the classroom on Monday, and continue the day’s instruction outdoors.

“I found an atrocious smell in the class room and ash particles on the floor (upon entering the classroom on Monday),” Bennett said. “The stench was just overwhelming and noxious. I actually moved my students and a couple of desks, and we ended up sitting outside for the day because it felt better, even though the air quality wasn’t that good outside. But it was better than being inside the classroom.”

Third-grade teacher Hope Watterson said her bungalow building was not as affected as other classrooms. “We may have fared better than some of the larger rooms. We have our own individual air-conditioning, that may be why.”

But Watterson also questioned if the school had been ready to re-open on Monday.

“When I came to the campus on Monday morning at 7 a.m. — I get here early — I could not even breathe. I’m not one to complain, but the smell of smoke was so strong. And because the cloud cover was low, it was just permeating the air completely. You couldn’t see any fire smoke, but [the smell] had come into the whole area. It was just laying here,” she said.

“I have two [students] that have asthma. And when the kids were coming to school on Monday morning, they were covering their noses and faces with their shirts.”

LAUSD released a statement from Local District Northwest Superintendent Joseph Nacorda, saying maintenance crews had returned to the 10 schools in the evacuation area on Monday night, and again on Tuesday “to provide additional cleaning needed to ensure the safety and well-being of our students.”

“Shifting winds may bring smoke into our community, and we will continue to provide masks for students and staff who request them,” the release stated. “We are also modifying outdoor activities, as needed, this week. Los Angeles Unified will continue to work with our public-safety partners in monitoring fire and air-quality conditions and will take appropriate actions based on the most current information provided to us. We know this has been a challenging time for our students, employees and families, and we thank everyone for their continued understanding and support.”

That wasn’t enough to mollify the protestors at the rally.

“This has been a real crisis of leadership,” said Bennett, one of several speakers at the press conference that verbally hammered the district officials about conditions there. “Someone should have made an executive decision before doors opened and said we need to shut this down, end of story. It’s our health we’re talking about and the health of our students and their young lungs. It’s time LAUSD steps up and puts protocols in place so this never happens again.”

It wasn’t clear on Tuesday how much more cleaning at the school would be done. Bennett said, “We haven’t been told officially they are going to be doing anything more to the school. We are still seeing cleaning crews around the day. I’m not sure what the directions are they have been given. We’ve not been told.

“My understanding is they are going to be shampooing the carpets. But I overheard that with my principal talking to somebody. But we’ve not been told that is, in fact, going to happen. It’s what I understand is going to happen.”

She added that the protestors were not advocating to close down the school.

“No, not at all,” Bennett said. “What we’re looking for is in the future we have protocols set in place to understand what is the checklist for when the school is safe and clean for students, faculty and staff to return; a clean and safe environment. We want this for the future so that this doesn’t happen again, that we go into an environment that is unhealthy for all.”

Ashley suggested “a third party” come into the school and assess the damage. “There was ash and soot in the bungalows. We got a phone call from the district saying the school had been cleaned, but it wasn’t. Kids were walking into dirty classrooms. And the rugs, we heard, weren’t going to be washed until this Saturday. That’s not taking care of the problem.”

She said she was not sure if she would let her son return to class.

“I went into the classroom (Tuesday) to pick up his schoolwork. I know they have been cleaning but it still smells terrible,” Ashley said. “I need to feel good about sending my asthmatic child to school.”

Westman expressed similar reservations.

“There have been some other issues I have brought to their attention that they have dealt with. But this is a major concern as far as health goes,” she said. “I don’t want to bring my kids somewhere where they’ll be treating toxic stuff that could potentially, down the line, cause them problems.”

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