Volume 14 Issue 8
By Bill Guy
Members of Associated Calexico Teachers beneath earthquake damaged overhang: (from Left)Secretary Manuela Fuentes, ACT Negotiations Chair Enrique Cernantez, ACT member Tino Castro, ACT member Norma Ortiz, ACT Treasurer Sandra Gustafson, and ACT President Carmen Durazo.
Most CTA members probably know about the magnitude 7.2 earthquake centered across the U.S.-Mexico border not far from the Imperial County town of Calexico on Sunday afternoon, April 4. In fact, if you live anywhere in Southern California, you probably felt it to some degree. But what you may not know is that the damage prevented the district’s nearly 10,000 students and about 450 members of Associated Calexico Teachers (ACT) from returning to class for almost six weeks — and left many unable to retrieve schoolbooks, supplies and personal items contaminated by asbestos fibers.
“The earthquake and its aftermath certainly made all our lives more difficult these last few weeks,” says ACT President Carmen Durazo, “but damage to buildings and materials is inconsequential compared to the countless injuries and potential loss of life that could very well have occurred had the earthquake happened on a school day. We are thankful not only for that, but also for the opportunities the disaster has given our community to display unity and collaboration in recovering from the damage and disruption.”
Initial earthquake damage included concrete soffits falling from the underside of veranda covers at numerous building sites; damage to electrical wiring and ceilings; leaking gas lines at some sites, and mildew and asbestos contamination from broken water fixtures; and shaken ceiling tiles. Continuing aftershocks and subsequent high winds in the days and weeks following the April 4 quake created safety hazards too severe for classes to continue until repairs could be made.
“ACT members couldn’t get to their classrooms or teach their lessons as usual,” says Durazo, “but that didn’t keep us from working in a variety of ways to help our students and our community cope with the effects of the earthquake, including doing our best to help the students keep from getting too far behind due to the missed instruction.”
Because the earthquake damaged the school district’s communications system, ACT Secretary Manuela Fuentes activated the chapter’s e-mail and phone tree system to keep members informed. Members assisted in setting up temporary shelter for food stations for displaced families, and ACT-member school counselors and psychologists provided invaluable service to fearful students and their families.
ACT members quickly began using their Snap Book grade book software to communicate with students about opportunities for volunteer tutoring sessions and homework assignments to keep students active. After it became evident that the break was going to extend into weeks, ACT members and district personnel put together homework lesson packets picked up by 6,314 of the district’s 9,332 students — none of whom had taken their California Standards Tests prior to the quake.
Filling the void
When the earthquake kept ACT member Juan Orduña and his AP calculus students away from their Calexico High School classroom with potential time on their hands, the 32-year teaching veteran quickly filled the void.
Communicating with his students via phone and the Web, he made sure they had their assignments and homework requirements. After realizing that the disruption could last several weeks, he offered tutoring lessons in the community’s library at a variety of times to better accommodate the students’ schedules.
“Because many of the students had to stay home to babysit with their younger siblings who normally would have been in school themselves, it wasn’t always possible for them to participate in the tutoring sessions in person,” says Orduña, “but those who could not were able to drop off their work and pick up new assignments.”
"I also took advantage of the opportunity to take my many years' worth of handwritten assignments and notes and enter them digitally as computer files, updating and incorporating them into current software," adds Orduña. "My students and I all worked together to bring as much good out of the bad situation as we could."
Need for disaster preparedness
“One thing the earthquake taught us that we’d like to share with our fellow CTA members throughout California — since most if not all live in an earthquake zone — is that they need to make sure that their district’s emergency plan doesn’t have fissures itself!” says ACT negotiations chair Enrique Cervantez.
ACT members participating in a May 11 meeting conceded that prior to the earthquake they had not been diligent enough about making sure that the district had an up-to-date emergency plan and that it was following through with preparations and provisions.
“In this instance, it resulted only in some initial irrational responses to the quake that probably caused unnecessary delay and disruption,” says Cervantez, “but had this been a true emergency involving injury or death, the consequences could have been horrendous.”
“Before this earthquake, I think we assumed that our ‘duck and cover and then go outside when possible’ approach might have been adequate,” says ACT member Humberto Wong. “But we know now that it isn’t. Although we can see that student desks held up under the falling debris, what would happen if the damage should be severe enough to prevent students and teachers from getting out of a building? What if there is a subsequent fire?”
“Even if we are able to evacuate our school building, what’s the contingency plan after that?” asks ACT membership director Deborah Kensler. “It’s hot most of the time in our district, but there are no current provisions for shaded areas should we have to remain on campus for an extended period of time. What about food and water? First aid kits and supplies? Or what about student medications that must be kept in the office? Many of our parents might not be able to pick up their children for hours. Who makes the decision about who can leave and when?”
“Something else this experience has taught me is that I need to make sure that I have a current inventory of my classroom and especially personal items or materials,” says ACT member Sandra Mendoza. “We also need to be careful to store heavy items toward the floor instead of on higher shelves and cabinets. File cabinets need to be locked, and cabinets, shelves, and anything that can fall need to be bolted to the wall.”
Although discussions related to class size reduction usually center more on its negative effects on learning, the ACT site reps agreed that it could also have a definite impact on student safety as well. “Having too many students in a classroom to ensure the placement of desks away from windows that could break or items that could fall on them is certainly another potential pitfall of class size reduction,” says ACT Vice President Jane Sharp.
Ten of the 12 Calexico schools affected by the earthquake reopened for class on Wednesday, May 5, and the remaining two more severely damaged schools were back in session by May 13. The school year was originally supposed to conclude on June 8, but the district has initiated the process of requesting attendance allowance from the California Department of Education for the missed instruction days.