District navigates healing and returning to campus after tragedy
July 13, 2020
The following was written by Amy Alzina, Ed.D., Superintendent/Principal of the Cold Spring Elementary School District, prior to the COVID-19 closure of schools in March. In this article, she recounts two natural disasters her district experienced and best practices for the restart of school operations following a tragedy. It seems each year we face an increasing number of natural disasters in California. Fires, earthquakes, mudslides, and extended power outages have all interfered with school operations. Each natural disaster has both immediate and long-term consequences. Often, school districts and schools do not have adequate resources or information to prepare for potential disasters and the post-disaster recovery efforts. A response to a natural disaster requires a comprehensive approach that includes enhanced communication, a focus on both instructional recovery and fiscal stability/recovery, and, most importantly, commitment to providing long-term psychological and trauma recovery. Recently, Cold Spring School District experienced two separate natural disasters back-to-back: a wildfire followed by a debris flow/mudslide. The district, a one-school school district nestled in the foothills of Santa Barbara, experienced the full brunt of both disasters. The recovery efforts began immediately during the Thomas Fire in December 2017, and continue to this day, two and a half years later. Jan. 8, 2018 was an unusually sunny day in the Santa Barbara area. The clear blue sky obscured the fact that a dangerous rain storm had been forecast for the area. The Office of Emergency Management had issued a mandatory and voluntary evacuation for the area surrounding the school district. By this time, Cold Spring School District had already canceled school for seven days due to the Thomas Fires that burned through the area. Notwithstanding the clear skies, Cold Spring made the decision to again cancel school. During the night, the torrential rains triggered a giant wall of boulders, mud and debris from the side of the mountain, wiping out more than 30 square miles of Montecito and burying everything in mud and debris. The mudslide severed an underground gas line and destroyed more than 500 homes. The severed gas line exploded and lit up the night sky. Homes were sheared off of their foundations and carried all the way down to the ocean, in many cases with the occupants inside the home. The mudslide also disrupted power and cellular communications in the area. Within an hour, the area was covered with hundreds of rescue workers from across the state searching the ruins of homes, crashed cars and riverbanks for survivors. The recovery efforts were grueling. The community worked around the clock to search for missing community members. Ultimately, the mudslide killed 23 people, including two Cold Spring School District students — a kindergartner and a sixth grader — and left another sixth grade student and her mother fighting for their lives in the ICU for 31 days. Nothing in a superintendent’s schooling, training or experience prepares him or her to deal with a natural disaster or the subsequent recovery efforts. While the Education Code and California Department of Education require districts to prepare school safety plans, often these plans are cumbersome, and out of date. These plans are usually found in large binders and unlikely candidates to be opened up during a crisis or natural disaster. Similarly, the plans rarely provide a district with any direction on post-disaster recovery.  There are some basic principles, however, that should be considered when a district is faced with a natural disaster or the recovery efforts thereto: 1. Communication is key. Frequent, clear and transparent communications will ultimately support the community with recovery and healing; 2. Focus on instructional recovery; 3. Immediate focus on budgetary impacts and identification of resources to support the restart of school operations and the recovery efforts; and 4. Focus on the psychological and emotional recovery of teachers, students and community. These principles are critical to the efforts to restart school operations.
In the case of the Cold Spring School District disasters, from the minute the debris flow occurred, communication became the most important factor for the superintendent. Creating a phone tree, locating each staff member and confirming the wellbeing of each staff member and student was the number one priority.  The district having an internal/external communication system such as ParentSquare allowed for instant, two-way communication to occur on a safe and documented platform. It was equally essential for the superintendent to maintain constant communication and a close relationship with the director of the Office of Emergency Management. As a result, the superintendent was able to effectively communicate real-time information to the families and community. Another key relationship was with neighboring district superintendents and the county office of education as they extended their available resources to provide physiological support and a space for the district to evacuate in order to keep school open for its students.   In the case of loss of life, the communication with the families of those who have lost loved ones is also critical. Understanding and respecting the wishes of the families and collaborating with mental health professionals to provide support to the student body and the community is also an important responsibility of the district leadership. Clear, frequent and transparent communications with the community establishes the foundation for the recovery effort. The fact that the community can rely on the school district for reliable information about what is happening and the resources that are available to the community is essential. Often emergency responders will rely on the school network to disseminate information to the community. Maintaining a close and positive relationship with the office of emergency management and emergency responders will invariably support these efforts.
Cold Spring School District was fortunate to have strong leadership and confidence among the teaching staff. The school was not only able to recover, but ultimately grow stronger in unity and love for each other. At the end of that traumatic year, the students’ summative scores on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress proved to be some of the highest test scores in the state of California. This was a result of thoughtful planning for the recovery of instruction and an extremely dedicated teaching staff. Teachers incorporated creative projects into the student’s day that gave students an outlet to reflect, process and grow. The teachers allowed every student to move forward at his/her own pace with their learning while also giving him/her a space to remember and grieve their lost friends/classmates and homes. This extended learning often happened in the form of before- and after-school tutoring from every classroom teacher as well as an opportunity to fill in learning gaps over the summer months.     Maintaining structure and routine proved to be essential even if it meant relocating the campus several times throughout the year to an alternate site. Teachers increased time for personal expression and discussion. They modeled positive coping skills and reduced the amount of homework to eliminate outside-of-school stress.  
Fiscal considerations
When faced with a natural disaster, there are three separate sources of funding that a district can turn to for help in stabilizing operations.  The first, and most important resource, is a district’s insurance policies. Most districts have insurance policies that cover the district for damages resulting from natural disasters. This may not be the case for earthquakes. The district’s business office should review its policies carefully and determine what coverage it has. Regardless of coverage, a district should immediately file a claim for any damage. Often, if multiple districts are faced with the same disaster, the district that files the claim first will receive attention and resources first. Insurance policies will cover damage that is directly related to the disaster. When in doubt whether something is covered, request it as part of the claim. The second sources of funding are federal and state grants for restarting operations or funding recovery efforts. Most of these grants will not permit you to double-dip for any monies the district received from an insurance claim. These grants include FEMA/CalEMA, Restart Grant and Project SERV. These can be found on the CDE website. These grants provided the Cold Spring School District with additional counseling, a school psychologist for a year-long period, after-school tutoring, supplemental curriculum/materials and retention stipends for district staff.

Every teacher within the Cold Spring School District served as a pillar of strength for the entire school community. The teachers showed the community how essential it is to meet the individual needs of every child.
The Cold Spring School District also received support from organizations like ACSA and the Small School District Association in the form of lobbying support. Wes Smith, executive director of ACSA, supported the district by advocating for funds committed for backfilling the decline in ad valorem taxes resulting from the natural disaster.  Finally, districts can turn to the local community as a source of revenue. Charitable contributions were a critical component of Cold Spring School District’s recovery efforts. The district’s foundation raised funds to avoid staffing reductions. Area foundations made contributions to the district. Nothing proved to be more uplifting than having Katy Perry perform a benefit concert, which contributed $63,000 to the district.    Districts need immediate financial assistance to battle the immediate consequences of a natural disaster. Unfortunately, many of the sources of funding are not immediately available to a district, resulting in the need to immediately reduce spending, including in some cases planning for staffing reductions. In the case of Cold Spring School District, the district did not receive tax backfill funding until nearly two years later, Restart Grant funding one year after the disaster and Foundation funding six to eight months after the disaster.  
Providing art as an outlet for expression of feelings was essential to the recovery of Cold Spring School District, which suffered the loss of two students in 2018 mudslides in Santa Barbara.
Psychological and emotional recovery
Fortunately, the Cold Spring School campus suffered minor physical damages in comparison, but encountered massive emotional damage among teachers, staff, students, parents and the community. The superintendent/principal immediately leveraged the greater community to aid in healing the hearts and minds of the community, which was essential for the restart of school. Every classroom teacher had a school psychologist, hospice worker or mental health professional in their classroom to support both the teacher and students. For the remainder of the school year, there was always a counselor on campus to support students, staff and parents as needed. In addition, a “Compassion Center” was established on campus as a resource for staff, parents and community members to receive wellness support, food and resources.  Every teacher within the Cold Spring School District served as a pillar of strength for the entire school community. The teachers showed the community how essential it is to meet the individual needs of every child both emotionally and academically by fostering a family atmosphere.   While the teachers and staff focused on strong relationships and personalized learning, the superintendent was preparing a plan for subsequent disasters and additional mandatory evacuations from predicted additional rain and debris flow. After learning from the mental health experts how essential it is to maintain structure and routine for students and families, even if it means relocating a campus, Cold Spring secured an alternate educational space with a neighboring district, Goleta Union School District. Shortly after the plan was created, Cold Spring Elementary School had to temporarily relocate to the alternate site, 15 miles away, during multiple mandatory evacuations in March 2018. These days off campus also meant securing lunches from area establishments as most families were living in hotels. The district eliminated homework, increasing time for personal expression and discussions (e.g., community circles), modeling positive coping skills for students and parents, and even securing a permanent therapy dog to sit with students while they worked. Cold Spring School District’s recovery efforts are ongoing. On Jan. 9, 2020, the community and the district commemorated the anniversary of the deadly debris flow by holding a candlelight vigil and procession to remember the 23 area residents that were killed. People of all ages attended the ceremony, where both private and public school children came together to sing a song about hope before leading the procession in a candlelight walk representing love, unity and hope for a brighter tomorrow. The children witnessed the collaboration from all aspects of the community, reinforcing one of life’s greatest lessons: how essential it is to love one another!  
Sage is the Cold Spring Elementary School therapy dog. 
Kindergartners sit next to the Cold Spring School District Memorial Bench for kindergartner Peerawat ”Pasta” Sutthithepa and sixth-grader Sawyer Baker-Corey, who were killed following mudslides in 2018.
Contact Us

© 2020 Association of California School Administrators
ACSA EdCal logo.
Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators