Effects of Wildfire-caused School Closures

Feb. 7, 2022 | Rebecca Miller, postdoctoral scholar at the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West and the Department of History

In the 17 academic years between 2002–03 and 2018–19, California schools closed for nearly 34,000 days across 6,664 individual schools due to wildfires, natural hazard impacts, infrastructure and student safety concerns. Wildfires were the biggest cause of school closures in California, causing nearly two-thirds of all unplanned closures in the state.

In our new paper, “Impact of short school closures (1-5 days) on overall academic performance of schools in California,” published in Scientific Reports, we use two-way linear fixed effects regression to estimate the effects of school closures on student performance based on scores from statewide English and mathematics assessments and college preparatory exams (SAT, ACT and Advanced Placement).

My co-author, Iris Hui of Stanford University, and I find significant negative impacts on test scores following wildfire closures, particularly among younger, elementary school students. However, other school closure causes are not associated with declines in test scores.

In addition, we find insignificant impacts of closures among schools with higher proportions of low-income and minority students. Even closures that last more than one week generally have no significant impact on test scores.

Our findings reveal that older students are resilient to short-term, unexpected school closures or that teachers are effectively making up lessons following closures. However, climate change projections indicate that wildfires will become more severe, likely resulting in more unanticipated school closures in California in the future. In response, schools should take active steps today to prepare for future closures, including supporting students, teachers and staff.