SINBAD CREEK, SWOLLEN from hours of heavy rainfall, burst through the fence surrounding Sunol Glen School in Alameda County on Saturday night, damaging three classrooms and two offices, destroying the school’s garden, athletic track and playground, and leaving 8 inches of mud and downed trees in its wake.

By the time Superintendent Molleen Barnes arrived at the Spanish-style campus Sunday, the water had receded, but she found the school’s day care classroom, tutoring center and art classroom had been badly damaged when the rush of water pushed the portables they were housed in off their foundations.

Five large storage containers used by the school and community, also unmoored by the water, had slammed into playground equipment and destroyed it.

“The fence line is a mess. The yard is a mess, and our beautiful garden is pretty much kaput,” Barnes told families in a video message. “We are working hard to get things back together as best we can and ready for Jan. 9. The idea is to open on Jan. 9 and welcome your children in.”

“The fence line is a mess. The yard is a mess, and our beautiful garden is pretty much kaput.”

Molleen Barnes, Sunol Glen Unified superintendent

An atmospheric river storm brought heavy rain and snowfall and high winds to California over the New Year’s holiday weekend. The result was flooding, downed trees and power outages that threatened to delay the reopening of school after the winter holiday break.

Members of the Sunol Glen community helped with cleanup on the campus that houses the 270 students in transitional kindergarten through eighth grade. The campus, which shares Main Street with a mini-mart, a barbershop and a restaurant, has been a school and community hub, hosting community meetings, plays and events, since it was built in 1925.

Although many volunteers pitched in to help, including a father with a backhoe, much of the work is being completed by a restoration management company. Insurance adjusters will determine how much of the damaged property can be salvaged and what is a loss.

Preparing for Round Two

It’s not clear how many other schools in the state were damaged by last weekend’s storm. In many cases, school staff are still inspecting properties.

The one-school district, and others in flood-prone areas of the state, were preparing for the next big storm, which was expected to arrive late Wednesday into Thursday. The storm and atmospheric river could bring more heavy rain, causing flooding in urban areas and around rivers, streams and creeks, according to the National Weather Service. Snow and high winds could also make getting to and from school treacherous in the mountains. Power outages are again likely in some parts of the state.

“We are sandbagging and moving shipping containers, clearing the drains, trying to do everything we can do to batten down the hatches for round No. 2,” Barnes said.

Santa Cruz County is one of the areas in the state expected to be hit hard by heavy rains and runoff through Thursday. School and county emergency staff met Monday to plan for the storm, including deciding which schools should be closed Tuesday, said Nick Ibarra, spokesman for the Santa Cruz County Office of Education.

Schools in areas still under evacuation orders and that are determined to be inaccessible to students will be closed. Decisions to close schools once the storm hits will be made on a case-by-case basis depending on conditions, he said.

“Most of our students have not yet returned from winter break, which is fortunate in that sense considering the severity of the storm we are expecting,” Ibarra said.

Some schools in the county will be used as evacuation centers, he said. 

New Alameda County Office of Education Superintendent Alysse Castro hadn’t even been sworn in yet when she got the call from Barnes about the damage to Sunol Glen School. She called Jake Wolf, a member of the California Department of Education’s Emergency Services Team.

The team, formed in 2020, includes Wolf and Joe Anderson, both former employees of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. The duo helps school officials communicate with state and federal agencies during emergencies like wildfires, earthquakes and storms. They offer up-to-date information about the emergency from the state operations center briefings they attend daily, give technical assistance about accessing government funds, connect school officials with needed resources and offer them advice on how to safely reopen schools.

“We know there is a significant storm front that’s rolling in on Wednesday and Thursday, so we’ll be monitoring those impacts statewide,” Wolf said. “We will be trying to determine what level of support may be needed on the local and county front.”

Keeping pace with Nature

Predicting where problems will pop up is difficult, he said.

“We don’t actually know where the rain is going to fall,” Wolf said. “And then you have counties like Alameda and Sacramento, where there’s a lot of channels, a lot of rivers, creeks and streams that are floating through. All it takes is somebody’s shed to get washed into a creek, and  it’ll block a culvert and then all of a sudden now you’ve got a flood.”

Wolf’s best advice to school officials who could be affected by the storm is to track National Weather Service reports for their area and to stay connected with their county Office of Education to ensure they have the most up-to-date information available.

Nicholas Zafiratos, the program coordinator for the Safe Schools for All program at the Monterey County Office of Education, has been visiting the county’s Office of Emergency Services offices daily to get updates on the storms. 

County Superintendent of Schools Deneen Guss posts regular updates to the county’s 20 school district superintendents on a WhatsApp chat. If there is a need for more detailed information there are emails and phone calls, she said. 

So far, the county’s schools have fared well in the storms, but levees near Chualar Elementary School near Salinas are expected to break, according to Guss. Cal Fire crews are at the school doing their best to protect it, she said.

Guss urged superintendents to take precautions before the next storm, which was expected to bring heavy rain and high winds to the area Wednesday afternoon and evening.

“We put all our schools on notice yesterday,” she said. “We know they are prepared. When we get really strong rains like this in older facilities, like portables, the roofs leak.”

South San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Shawnterra Moore announced its schools will be closed Thursday. The district serves the communities of Daly City, South San Francisco and San Bruno.

This story originally appeared in EdSource.