Hundreds of students who went away to outdoor science camps in the mountains last week and got stuck there due to heavy snowfall are expected back home Monday, Feb. 27.
Students from schools in Orange County’s Irvine, Garden Grove, Fullerton and La Palma, as well as the San Gabriel Valley, were snowed in at several camps in the San Bernardino mountains and unable to return as planned Friday.
By Monday late afternoon, students and teachers from G.B. Miller Elementary in La Palma, Gilbert Elementary in Garden Grove, Rolling Hills Elementary in Fullerton and Rowland Elementary in Rowland Heights either had arrived or were almost home.
In Irvine Unified, 120 students from Turtle Rock Elementary arrived home late Monday afternoon. And another 492 Irvine students — from Cadence Park, Oak Creek and Stone Creek schools — were still making their way home from the Pali Institute Outdoor Education Center in Running Springs, with the California Highway Patrol escorting buses down the mountain, as of Monday evening.
Southern California’s historic snowstorm and record-breaking rainfall led to the closure of all routes leading up to Big Bear and other areas where students were participating in what’s a rite of passage in California: a multi-day outdoor science camp. San Bernardino County, where the Big Bear region is, declared a local emergency Monday evening due to the weather.
While some enjoyed the extra snow time, it also led to some anxiety and homesickness.
“It’s been a rollercoaster,” said Rolling Hills teacher Jody Dyer, who was at the High Trails Outdoor Science School in Big Bear. “Even for those who have a history of going to camps and spending time at friends’ homes. They have fun. They feel homesick. Then they have a full day of activities and have fun. But in the evening, they start to feel bad again.
“And that’s where we come in,” said Dyer, who along with fellow teachers Kimberly Clary-Horn and Kyle Williamson has worked to keep up the spirits of the 69 sixth-graders from her school at “Camp High Trails.”
Teachers and camp counselors have been working around the clock to provide additional activities, meals and a safe place for the students, according to officials from various districts.
But some parents at Irvine Unified expressed concern about what they said was inadequate communication from the district. At least 30 parents met Sunday afternoon with Mayor Farrah Khan to ask questions. Khan did not respond to a request for comment.
“(Khan) explained what she knew and comforted as many people as she could,” said Parrisa Yazdani, who said she worried for her sixth-grader, who had just enough medication to last through Friday, as allowed by the camp’s rules. Yazdani said she asked the camp nurse to allow her daughter to skip her dose on Friday so she would have one for Saturday.
“No one (from the district) has contacted me about my daughter’s medication,” she said.
But teachers, Yazdani said, “have been phenomenal and gone above and beyond.”
Because students were not allowed to take cell phones with them, some teachers have used their own devices to help students communicate with families.
Some parents also questioned why school districts didn’t postpone the trips.
“We’re not in the 1900s. We have 10-day forecasts now,” said Irvine parent Feroz Kadar.
“I find that the communication — the level of clarity, of rigor, of detail, of transparency — appalling,” Kadar said, adding that he hopes the district will “better prepare” communications in future emergencies.
Both Yazdani and Kadar said they, along with other parents, valued above all else their children’s safety and wanted them brought down the mountains only once it is safe, regardless of how long that could take.
Irvine Unified parent Katie Fern, who has twins at Camp Pali, said she’s been happy with the level of communication from Stone Creek Elementary in Irvine from the get-go.
“We’ve had a Google Drive with photos of our kids every day. We had a Zoom call on Friday, where they set up five-minute calls,” she said. “I was getting enough information from the school. That was enough for me. I don’t know what the district could have added.”
Irvine Unified Spokeswoman Annie Brown said in a statement Monday: “We understand that this fluid situation may have caused concern and frustration for our students, staff and families.”
“We would like to thank them for their patience and understanding as we continue to work diligently with the CHP, school and camp staff, our transportation team and other agencies on their safe return,” Brown said. “IUSD’s top priority is the safety of our students and staff. We continue to do everything in our power to ensure that our students are reunited with their families as safely and as soon as possible.”
At Centralia Elementary School District, Superintendent Norma Martinez also expressed gratitude to CHP “for their efforts to clear the road and prioritize our students coming down from camp.” Students were expected to return one day early, on Thursday, but a big rig accident closed the road.
The continued storm is expected to affect camps originally slated for this week. Irvine Unified canceled at least one planned excursion, and Anaheim Elementary is working with a camp to reschedule, said Superintendent Christopher Downing.
Saddleback Valley Unified had 96 students and adults at an outdoor science camp last week but was able to get them home Friday by transporting them via smaller 20-person vehicles down the mountain.
“There was great teamwork behind the scenes and good fortune of eventually hitting the timing right on the roads and thinking a little out of the box,” Saddleback Valley Unified spokeswoman Wendie Hauschild said Monday.
With Irvine Unified’s much larger group, more than 600 students, along with the severe weather conditions, “it would not be possible or safe to transport that number of students down the mountain in SUVs or other passenger vehicles,” Superintendent Terry L.Walker told parents in an email Friday.
CHP, he said, “heavily discourages families from driving to the camp sites.”
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