The Coachella Valley Unified School District announced all school and offices will be closed until Monday, including after school activities, due to air quality concerns stemming from a 32-acre mulch fire burning near Thermal.
District officials said at a board meeting the decision comes amid predictions of stagnant air and smoke conditions in the area from Cal Fire and the Air Quality Management District.
The Victory Bell Game between Coachella Valley and Indio has been moved to Indio High School, officials confirmed.
The announcement follows a chaotic day at three Coachella Valley Unified schools, Las Palmitas Elementary, Toro Canyon Middle, and Desert Mirage High. Hundreds of students were evacuated due to health concerns from the Martinez Fire which has burned since Monday at a green waste center less than a mile down the street.
“I came out this morning, I’m like, this is not a condition where a child should be in,” said Elizabeth Tabarez, a CVUSD parent. “I was expecting an email or something saying your child is not going to be in school.”
“The last few days we’ve had to drive through a cloud of smoke and we’ve been breathing toxic air,” said Pilar Schlickenmayer, a teacher at Toro Canyon Middle School.
15 people, mostly students, were taken by ambulance to JFK Medical Center. Officials called it a ‘mass casualty incident.’
“It’s really concerning. Some people were pretty sick today and I don’t want to see anybody lose their life over this or end up in the intensive care unit over this,” said Dr. Andrew Kassinove, who treated the patients at the emergency room. “It could have been considerably worse than it will get worse if people are saying around this fire for days and days in a row.”
Teachers questioned why action wasn’t taken sooner. “We were outraged this morning, the teachers when we came in we were threatening to walk out,” said Pilar Schlickenmayer.
At Thursday night’s meeting, parents called on the school board members for answers.
“Why does it take my 12-year-old to call me and say, ‘I’m not feeling safe at school?'” asked Tabarez.
And board members defended their decision.
“When our kids stay at home, they’re not being educated,” one board member said.
“We send our families and our kids back to their homes where some of them don’t have any filters, some of them are operating without any type of air conditioning systems and just depend on opening their windows and it’s worse,” said Maria Machuca, a board member.
“We cannot please everybody 100 percent of the time,” said Dr. Maria Gandera, CVUSD’s superintendent. “That is not why we make decisions. We make decisions that are best at the moment in time for the safety of our students and our staff.”
JFK Hospital donated 15,000 smoke masks to the Galilee Center in Mecca to help anyone affected by the smoke as the fire continues to burn in the east valley.