California Fires Close Colleges

Institutions affected by California wildfires juggle logistics of finals, move-out, assignment deadlines.

December 11, 2017
Thomas Aquinas College
Smoke rises behind Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif.

Colleges across Southern California are suspending or canceling classes -- and, in some case, final exams -- as wildfires continue to ravage the region and disrupt daily life for affected residents. In addition to keeping their campuses and students safe, colleges are also having to deal with logistical issues brought on by delayed homework assignments and commutes disrupted by fires far away from campus.

Closures have ranged in length and time, but perhaps the most disruptive to students and faculty alike was at Thomas Aquinas College, a small, private liberal arts institution in Santa Paula, where the Thomas fire has been raging nearby. The college evacuated its students last week and opened this past weekend so that students could retrieve their belongings, though it remains closed. Final exams were canceled, and after some back-and-forth -- and considering sending final exams to students over break to do at home -- the institution decided it would hold this semester's final exams at the start of the next semester.

To accommodate the move, one week will be removed from the second semester, and professors will have to update their syllabi accordingly. The university has also modified its schedule, and residence halls will open early so that students have time to get to campus and study. Even with those adjustments, making all the exams fit in one week poses a logistical challenge for the university and students alike, so some exams will be optional.

"By holding exams when students return from the Christmas break, the college can preserve the benefit of common study. Also, since many of you were unable to retrieve your books from the campus before returning home for the Christmas break, having take-home exams would unfairly disadvantage those students who left without their books. Finally, having exams soon after experiencing the fire and evacuation would unnecessarily add to the stress and anxiety associated with final exams," John J. Goyette, Thomas Aquinas's dean, said in a statement.

Students have been instructed not to return to campus -- with an exception to pick up their belongings -- until next semester. Those who cannot immediately return are being accommodated on campus through Saturday.

On Sunday, the University of California, Santa Barbara, announced that finals scheduled for this week would be rescheduled for January. The university cited concerns about power outages that are disrupting technology services, confusion about a false report of an evacuation and other problems to state that going ahead with final exams had become "untenable."

Though many colleges closed for some period of time last week, most were hoping to be open again Monday.

Mount St. Mary’s University's main undergraduate campus is set to be closed to the general public from Monday through the rest of the semester, though students are able to access the campus to retrieve their belongings. The Los Angeles institution held final exams Friday, with more scheduled for Monday, at the institution’s second campus, though “professors also have discretion in how to best complete their courses this semester.”

Fires also mean students and faculty have to deal with the logistical struggle of homework assignments, or even showing up to class.

“Students unable to attend class Friday should notify their instructors, and employees unable to report for work should contact their manager. Faculty and supervisors are asked to continue providing latitude to students and employees affected by the fires,” California State University, Northridge, announced in a tweet. The institution had closed Thursday, but reopened Friday.

The University of California, Los Angeles, was safe from fires, but had to close last week because of how the disaster was affecting those trying to get to campus. As for how to handle the academic disruptions, the institution left it up to individual professors and departments.

“While the campus itself is safe, difficult traffic conditions continue to prevent many students, faculty and staff from reaching UCLA,” the university said in a statement published Wednesday. “Consequently, UCLA is canceling classes today that begin on or after noon. Students should check with their instructors or departments about making up class time or class work. Depending on how conditions change during the day we will have further instructions this afternoon.”

Also disrupted at some point by fires were institutions in the Ventura County Community College District; California State University, Channel Islands; California State University, San Marcos; Los Angeles Valley College; Los Angeles Mission College; Los Angeles Pierce College; Santa Monica College; and Palomar College.


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