State and county officials offer support to schools impacted by Coastal Fire

Wood Canyon Elementary Principal Chris Dembiec, CUSD Board of Education President Martha McNicholas, County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares, CUSD Superintendent Kirsten M. Vital Brulte and State Superintendent Tony Thurmond
Wood Canyon Elementary Principal Chris Dembiec (left) shares an update with Capistrano Unified school board President Martha McNicholas, Orange County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares, Capistrano Superintendent Kirsten M. Vital Brulte and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond.

With their own campus temporarily closed as a result of the Coastal Fire, more than 300 students from Moulton Elementary School in the Capistrano Unified School District were directed to nearby Wood Canyon Elementary on Thursday morning.

At 8:15 a.m., the Moulton students were grouped with their teachers in a multipurpose room. Less than 30 minutes later, they had seamlessly transitioned into 14 classrooms set up by a team of custodians, Principal Chris Dembiec said.

Capistrano Unified leaders devised plans for the temporary transfer with the goal of preserving in-person instruction and continuity, which has been a district priority throughout the pandemic. As firefighters battled the blaze, CUSD also sought to minimize disruptions for working parents.

“We knew parents needed a safe place for their children to learn,” said Ryan Burris, the district’s chief communications and public engagement officer.

On Friday, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond visited the new classes to support students impacted by the fire and to hear about the efforts made by school officials to ensure young learners were not falling behind while evacuation orders were in place. He also offered to assist students and families with additional resources, including food vouchers and gift cards. 

“We are truly saddened by the recent events following the Coastal Fire here in Orange County,” Thurmond said. “We will work tirelessly around the clock to ensure students and their families will be taken care of as evacuations continue throughout the area.” 

While visiting a group of students in one of the portable classroom buildings at Wood Canyon, Thurmond reminded them “we are so proud that you continue coming to school even when a tragic thing happens.”

Thurmond also met with Capistrano Unified Superintendent Kirsten Vital Brulte and Orange County Superintendent Dr. Al Mijares, who credited the rapid response of the state.

“It’s an effort to respond to a crisis and to check in with the staff to ensure they have the resources to mitigate learning loss,” Mijares said. 

On Thursday, CUSD leadership began providing Chromebooks to students who were lacking sufficient supplies outside of their normal classrooms. District staff and community members also reached out to support Wood Canyon Elementary, which typically servers about 400 students.

“The biggest question I’m getting is ‘How can I help?’” said Ronda Walen, president of the local California School Employees Association chapter. 

Mijares said OCDE would continue to offer support to the Laguna Niguel and Aliso Viejo communities.

“Anything people need to get back on their feet,” he said. “Our whole effort is to find out exactly the extent of the crisis and to learn where we can weigh in and assist as a county office of education.”

With the Coastal Fire further contained by Friday afternoon, the Orange County Fire Authority reduced the mandatory evacuation zone from 900 homes to 131 homes.