With power on, school becomes refuge through PG&E power shutdowns

October 29, 2019 — by Aaria Thomas and Alekhya Vadlakonda

Last Saturday, the Pacific Gas and Electricity (PG&E) shut down power for about 940,000 people across California due to high winds and high fire danger. The outages affected thousands of Saratoga residents and caused Los Gatos High to cancel school on Monday. 

In the meantime, the Kincade Fire tore through huge parts of Sonoma County, fed by winds as high as 93 miles per hour. The smoke from this fire and other smaller ones made its way south, and the air quality index (AQI) in the Bay Area rose to 105 microns in some places; the healthy AQI range is between 0-50 microns.  

PG&E began shutting off power for fear of their power lines possibly snapping due to winds and sparking anything like the wildfires of 2017 and 2018. The first power outages of the fall occurred during the week of Oct. 14-18. 

The power started going out at around 5 p.m. on Saturday for thousands, and those in some parts of Saratoga lost electricity throughout the evening. Most residents were without power for approximately 48 hours, and PG&E began turning it back on for some on Monday around 11:30 a.m. To help students whose homes lacked power, the school kept the student center open late for at least Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights, and about 30 students each night were taking advantage of it.

Many students who had their power shut off had to find other means of doing homework and preparing for tests in addition to preparing meals and other necessities. “It’s just frustrating,” assistant principal Kerry Mohnike said. “Not only for all the social reasons that power is important, but because if students are  working on projects or trying to communicate with people, it's just hard to do that.”

Thousands of residents and businesses in Los Gatos also lost power over the past weekend. 

An email from executive assistant to the superintendent Jane Marashian said that due to the extended time without electricity, Los Gatos High’s battery backup systems were exhausted, and they were unable to power food and fire safety services, leading to the Monday cancelation.

While SHS didn’t close down the assumption of many students and teachers was that the school would remain open regardless of whether there was power, unless there were larger issues.

“The determining issue on closing school is whether or not food can be served,” Mohnike said. “If students at the school depend on the food service and we can’t cook, then we can’t open the school. If there is ever some interruption to the water supply or the pumps that provide water, that’s another issue.”

Since the school retained power during both outages, the administration and teachers took steps to aid students who had lost electricity and internet access. 

Mohnike said that part-time administrator Matt Torrens, principal Greg Louie and assistant principal Brian Safine kept the student center open until 9 p.m. on Sunday night and around 10 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

“We need power to function,” junior Anjali Satish said. “Our lives are just so much harder without it.”

The student center offered students who had lost power a place to work. Teachers were also flexible with deadlines and adjusted their schedules to accommodate for students who had trouble completing assignments at home. 

Power returned for the majority on Monday, but was threatened to be shut off for Tuesday and Wednesday during another wind event.