Liam Adams is an independent journalist in Denver writing for local and national outlets.  

California Wildfires Upend Exams at Region’s Colleges and Heighten Tensions at UCLA

Originally published for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

As wildfires ravaged the Los Angeles area, at least 10 colleges canceled classes on Thursday, only days before final examinations were due to start.

Thomas Aquinas College is closed indefinitely, until the Thomas Fire, named for the college because it broke out nearby, subsides. John J. Goyette, dean of Thomas Aquinas, wrote in a message that he was asking students and their parents to “be patient” as they wait to hear when students can return to their dormitories. He said he hoped the college could reopen next week for final exams.

Other colleges that closed on Thursday included California State University’s Channel Islands, Northridge, and San Marcos campuses, Los Angeles Valley College, Mount St. Mary’s University, Pierce College, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Ventura College.

The fires spurred a separate controversy at the University of California at Los Angeles. Students there complained on Wednesday after they said the emergency-alert system had been delayed in notifying them that classes were canceled due to the wildfires.

That day the university decided at 11 a.m. to cancel afternoon classes because of hazardous transportation conditions, although some students said they had not been notified until 12:04 p.m. By that time, students had already begun arriving on the campus for their noon classes, said Michael Skiles, president of the Graduate Student Association. At 4:44 p.m.students were notified that classes would resume on Thursday.

Administrators had decided “for all students what’s best” when they initial opted to hold classes on Thursday, said Divya Sharma, the student government’s academic-affairs commissioner. After leading the the Academic Affairs Commision in writing a letter urging that classes be canceled until the air quality improved, Mr. Sharma organized a “Stay-In,” a boycott of classes, until the air was safe.

The delay in notification and the decision to hold classes on Thursday led students to draft a petition expressing “frustration and disappointment with emergency management.” Among other requests in the petition, students asked the administration to avoid “inconsistency and ambiguity of Bruin Alert Messages” and “disparity among messages” for those in different departments. The petition also asked the university to cancel classes on Thursday.

Students were concerned by the emergency-alert system’s delay because it could put them in graver danger if, for example, there was a shooter on the campus, said Mr. Skiles. “People could die as a result if it takes that long for information to get out,” he said. Mr. Skiles said the delay called to mind a June 2016 incident in which a former graduate student fatally shot a professor on the campus and then shot himself to death.

“UCLA’s administration promised they would fundamentally overhaul their procedures, so they would be able to communicate with the university in a timely manner,” Mr. Skiles said, but students worry that “that’s not the case at all.”

The university declined to comment through a spokesman reached by phone.

The petition drew 7,589 signatures in five hours. At 12:38 a.m. on Thursday the university canceled classes for a second time.

The campus is not safe because of the poor air quality, Mr. Skiles said. On Thursday at 6:18 a.m. students received an email saying that although classes had been canceled, the campus “remains open and safe. Faculty and staff should report to work if able.”

UCLA is a mile and a half south of the mandatory-evacuation zone for the Skirball Fire, in northern Los Angeles, Mr. Skiles said.

Some students were upset, he said, because “the campus is so bad that quite a few students are having respiratory health problems and it’s advisable to wear a mask.”

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