Sierra House students moved to Al Tahoe, again
Parents, students and Lake Tahoe Union School District are all still feeling the burn from a blaze last year at Sierra House Elementary School.
The fire last November has lead to about one-third of the school undergoing construction.
Students in grades kindergarten through fifth spent the rest of last year attending class at Al Tahoe and have been sent there this year, but not before starting classes at Sierra House.
Teachers, parents and students were all excited to start the new school year back in their home.
“My kids love their school, they love their teachers and love their friends and they want to go to school,” said Sierra House parent Colleen Klym.
Longtime District Superintendent James Tarwater wanted to accommodate the parents’ wishes.
“I don’t blame the parents for wanting to be back at Sierra House,” Tarwater said. “The parents and staff made it clear they didn’t want to be at Al Tahoe.”
The construction was slated to be far enough along to allow the school to open for the scheduled first day of school Aug. 26. However, delays pushed the opening until Sept. 9, causing the students to miss nine days of school. The district is figuring out how to make up those days.
The delay in starting school put a bad taste in the mouths of some parents.
“They weren’t prepared for construction delays making the school not ready for the first day,” said Sierra House parent Donielle Morse.
The First Day
Classes started Monday with parts of the school still under construction. Parents were nervous about dropping their kids off in the school’s current state.
“When we returned on Monday, we were shocked at the condition of the school,” Morse said.
The school is a “full-blown construction site,” said Sierra House parent Julie Lowe.
President of the South Tahoe Educators Association, Jodi Dayberry, did not believe the school should be opened.
“Given that the school was still under construction and school had already been delayed two weeks, in my opinion, the school shouldn’t have been opened.”
The middle section of the school, called the upper pod, is off-limits to students and staff. Four of the eight rooms in the upper pod were borderline habitable and housed students on the first day but students were moved after that first day.
Most of the construction sites are blocked off by snow fencing, but some sections are just roped off with caution tape. Parents are concerned about how easy it would be for their kids to walk under the tape into the job site.
Despite the condition of the school, Tarwater said he was given the go ahead from the Division of State Architects, the group overseeing the project, to allow students back on campus. Tarwater said he wouldn’t have let students back into school if “we didn’t think it was safe.”
Parents are also worried about the construction workers themselves.
“They’re not local construction workers and there weren’t background checks done,” Lowe said.
Morse also expressed concern about children being in danger from the workers.
“Construction workers are being monitored and separated,” Tarwater said.
He also pointed out that it’s not uncommon to have contractors on site at schools during school hours, adding it would’ve been impossible to get all the work done during the eight weeks of summer break.
Students must be escorted when walking around the school.
During a site visit by the Tribune on Wednesday, no children were unaccompanied.
The Smoke Incident
Monday got off to a rocky start. A plumber caused sparking and smoke while grinding a pipe, setting off fire alarms.
Lake Valley Fire Department was called to the scene and half of the responders cleared the smoke while the other half helped calm the students.
According to Lowe, parents were informed about the situation by their own children much later in the day, not by the school.
The school district, who has been posting regular bulletins updating construction information, put out a bulletin the next day saying, “There was not a construction fire yesterday, contrary to DISPARAGING RUMORS.”
Lowe also said Tarwater claimed the alarms were set off by construction dust, not smoke.
In a school board meeting on Tuesday night, Lake Valley Fire Chief Tim Alameda clarified the alarm was, in fact, set off by smoke, not dust.
“We’ve gone from not being reasonable and prudent to exhibiting a callous, blatant disregard for the safety of the children,” said Alameda to the joy of parents in attendance and who had already told the school district he didn’t think the school should be opened.
Parents were furious about the way Tarwater handled communication of the problem.
“The district has been very disingenuous with the communications with the parents,” Morse said.
Tarwater admits he could’ve informed parents of the situation earlier.
“Could it have been faster? You bet,” Tarwater said. “If I had to do it over, I would’ve had (Principal) Karin (Holmes) send information out sooner.”
Moving to Al Tahoe
After the incident Monday, Alameda urged Tarwater to not let students back into the main building.
“We didn’t have to move the students, but we did,” Tarwater said.
Starting Wednesday, Sept. 11, all students were dropped off at Al Tahoe for breakfast. Fourth graders, fifth graders and one second grade class were bused to Sierra House, while the rest of the students remained at Al Tahoe for classes.
Parents are not much happier with the situation at Al Tahoe.
Because that building is used by the Boys and Girls Club, some classes have to be broken down the end of the day and set up again the next morning.
“The teachers have been beyond flexible,” said Sierra House Principal Karin Holmes.
As she gave the Tribune a tour of the Al Tahoe location, students could be seen learning and heard laughing.
Kaylee Klym, a second grader who is attending school at Al Tahoe, said she’s glad to be there.
“We don’t have to deal with the construction,” Kaylee said, adding she doesn’t like the construction because it’s loud.
She’s been separated from her older brother, who is attending his fifth grade class at Sierra House but she said she’s OK with the separation because she’s got her friends to keep her company.
Kaylee’s mom, Colleen is amazed by the students.
“The children are so resilient,” Klym said. “They’ve continued to learn and achieve, no matter what’s been thrown their way.”
Holmes has also been impressed with the students.
“They never cease to amaze me,” Holmes said.
The Unsung Heroes
The students aren’t the only ones impacted by the changes. Teachers have had to quickly adjust and Dayberry is concerned for them.
“Our teachers, they’re experiencing trauma themselves,” Dayberry said. “They are struggling to put on their best face for the students.”
Tarwater sees the toll the changes are taking on the teachers.
“The teachers are emotionally at their end, they want this to be done and it breaks your heart,” Tarwater said.
Dayberry also gives credit to Holmes who, she says, “is doing the very best she can.”
Holmes and Dayberry have given shout outs to custodians who have helped set up the classes at Al Tahoe and the cafeteria staff who are making food at Sierra House and bringing it to Al Tahoe.
Tarwater said he’s pushing the contractors to finish as soon as possible, but is cautious because overtime pay would come from the school district’s budget.
The school will be reinspected Friday, Sept. 13. Tarwater and Holmes are hoping to get students back to Sierra House the following week.
In the meantime, permanent fencing has been set up at Sierra House to protect students from the job site.
Another bathroom is being prepared for student and teacher use.
However, parents feel the relationship between them and Tarwater has been ruined.
“As a parent, I’m incredibly disheartened by the lack of transparency by the higher ups,” Klym said.
Dayberry has also lost trust in Tarwater.
“The mishandling of the Sierra House fire has created a lack of trust that the superintendent is able to continue on in his current position,” Dayberry said.
“All you can do is look at the schedule every day and make adjustments,” Tarwater said. “I have no control at this point.”
The construction is slated to be done Sept. 23.