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Porter Ranch schools displaced in methane gas leak are heading back home

Mike Szymanski | June 21, 2016

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The portable classrooms for displaced Porter Ranch students will be removed.

Boxes started being packed up the day after teachers left school last week, and by the time principals come back to school on July 21, all four schools should be back to normal after the Porter Ranch methane gas leak disrupted lives over the past year, school officials said Tuesday.

“A lot of movement has already occurred, and multiple cleanings have been done,” said Vivian Ekchian, the Local District Northwest superintendent who oversaw the move of 1,800 students when it was deemed that the air could possibly be unsafe for students near the Aliso Canyon natural gas leak that caused some nausea and breathing issues for students and teachers. Over the winter holiday break, the district construction team created two entire new campuses on two different school sites and managed to keep the teachers and students together in the same locations rather than dispersing them to multiple sites.

Castlebay Lane Charter and Porter Ranch Community School students and faculty will return to their home campuses when school starts again in August, and the host schools of Northridge Middle and Sunny Brae Elementary schools will return to normal. Overall, more than 1,800 students were displaced, and even though Southern California Gas plugged up the leak in February, some parents were skeptical that the homes and school buildings were safe.

“We are confident the schools are being cleaned with the necessary safety guidelines,” said Carlos Torres, deputy director of the Office of Environmental Health and Safety for the district. The office oversaw cleaning and inspections in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Public Health Department.

Torres said the schools had their air ducts cleaned and were equipped with filters and air purification systems, but that no major construction was required before the students move back to the schools. The district estimates the cost for the relocation at $5 million and counting, and a full bill will be submitted when all costs are tallied. The district expects full reimbursement from the gas company.

Faculty and parents at all the school sites received letters on May 31 about the plans to return to the original school sites. The rented, portable temporary classrooms will be cut in half and shipped back to San Diego. The schools hosting the displaced schools didn’t particularly benefit from the new construction except for perhaps some new paved parking spaces, Ekchian said.

“The only benefit was that they were able to demonstrate their professionalism and sense of community,” Ekchian said.

The district superintendent said she received letters and emails from second graders and 8th graders alike detailing how they appreciated the smooth transition to a new location.

“From a social-emotional perspective, at a minimum, we taught resilience and an appreciation for what they didn’t have before, and how to build relationships with other children they would not have met otherwise,” Ekchian said.

“We have created a tremendous playbook for if and when this is necessary in the future,” Ekchian said. If a fire or earthquake displaces students from one or many schools, the district now knows they have the ability to react and solve the problems.

“It was a tremendous effort by the entire community,” Ekchian added.

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