UCLA gave students their own version of a finals dead week by allowing them to venture to class in hazardous air conditions during the Skirball fire.
More than a year later, little progress has been made to solidify a protocol for academic accommodations in emergencies.
The Skirball fire broke out in late 2017 just down the road from campus. Mayor Eric Garcetti declared a local state of emergency, fancy neighborhoods outside UCLA were evacuated and fire-related traffic shutdowns on the 405 prevented students and faculty from reaching campus. Students’ usual finals week stress doubled as these changes impacted their schedule and studying. Going outside wasn’t even an option for those with asthma or other respiratory and health problems.
Despite these red flags, UCLA did not officially cancel classes until more than 7,000 frustrated students signed a letter from the Undergraduate Students Association Council’s Academic Affairs Commission urging the Academic Senate to prioritize the safety of students. BruinAlert was a dismal reassurance in these times, only giving updates when health hazards had set in.
Whether students were frazzled in class or worried in their own rooms, they felt the administration was not taking their concerns seriously.
A year later, even more wildfires are wreaking havoc in California, and UCLA has seemed to make little progress in creating a streamlined protocol for communication and class cancellations when emergencies strike. Students deserve to know they will not be forced to sacrifice their physical and emotional well-being to attend class during a major emergency.
UCLA’s previous emergency responses have failed to take into account how students would get to class and how they would perform under duress. During the Skirball fire, the information provided was often vague and underwhelming. Students were unsure how to proceed normally when they were forced to make decisions based on a tweet-length update from administration.
“We drafted this letter demanding that class be cancelled from AAC because BruinAlert was where students get the most accurate information during these emergencies from, but we were frustrated that it just wasn’t coming fast enough,” said Nidirah Stephens, the USAC Academic Affairs commissioner.
Many were upset that UCLA did not seem to be taking their health and safety seriously. After all, UCLA cited that transportation delays were the cause behind the campuswide closure, not the fire hazard.
Even when news of the class cancellation came halfway through Dec. 7, 2017, faculty responses were inconsistent. Some told their students to stay inside, others couldn’t even get to school themselves and many insisted attendance was mandatory.
“Many of my friends and I were afraid of not coming to class and being penalized by professors, even though the freeway was closed for commuting students and air quality was hazardous,” said My Tran, a third-year sociology student. “Students and professors can’t learn or teach if their health is at risk.”
There is currently no consensus on when to cancel classes in emergencies or how students and faculty will make academic accommodations for these events. Emergency response guides consider physical precautions as long as students are on campus, but entirely ignore off-site dangers and the academic disadvantage Bruins face from not being able to attend class. The departmental emergency template has no mention of how to follow up with students impacted by emergency situations or how to help them readjust academically.
The AAC is in the process of proposing new terms for grading buffer zones, negotiable academic supplements and make-up materials to the Academic Senate, but this is not yet guaranteed policy. The Academic Senate needs to work efficiently in passing the AAC’s proposal to have these measures in place for the next campus emergency.
If passed, students will feel safer during emergencies: They’ll know that it won’t be left up to circumstance whether or not they’re forced to attend class and that health is a priority. Students will know they are not expected to sacrifice their grades for health and that the administration is putting them first if the Academic Senate approves academic accommodations.
UCLA spokesperson Katherine Alvarado said the process for making up lost days is done through consultation with the dean’s office and the Academic Senate, with the final decision being made by administrators.
Yet after every emergency, students receive no support from UCLA in readjusting to their classes. Having such extensive deliberations to allow students to make up lost days means accommodations, if any, arrive too late to fix things.
“I knew that I couldn’t go to class that day, but on top of the stress of finals, I felt even more unprepared and behind,” said Annabel Chen, a fourth-year political science and communication student. “Not all my professors were sympathetic about the situation and still expected everything turned in, as if nothing was going on.”
Alvarado said Administrative Vice Chancellor Michael Beck established a working group of faculty and environmental experts to work on new procedures for future emergencies at UCLA and the other nine University of California campuses. He also recently was asked to help create guidelines for all the campuses regarding when to suspend campus activities and classes.
While it might be a step in the right direction, the Academic Senate needs to help students make up for lost class time. As much as we may all rejoice in waking up to a random class cancellation email, the reality is it creates a huge setback for both students and professors working on the quarter schedule, which already has a small margin of error.
Unless UCLA learns from its history of failed emergency responses and poor communication, students will continue to suffer and endure stress during these unpredictable circumstances.
Otherwise, it will be new year, same lagging UCLA emergency responses.