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Unprecedented school closures leave L.A. inconvenienced, annoyed but undaunted

Ana Rodriguez awoke to disturbing voices on the television.

The sixth-grader thought she heard that police had found a bomb at her school, Sunrise Elementary in Boyle Heights.

She thought about her teachers and worried that it could still be there when she returned.

 “I’m scared that a bomb could explode at my school,” she said.

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As the unprecedented closure of every Los Angeles school unfolded Tuesday in response to a bomb threat that turned out to be false, fear and confusion inevitably followed.

Tens of thousands of parents found their workday routines thrown into turmoil, struggling to get babysitters on short notice, dragging kids to work, or negotiating with their employers for an unscheduled day off.

The disruption may have been  a factor in the death of a 17-year-old boy, who was apparently walking to International Charter High School with his backpack on when he was struck and killed by a city truck in Highland Park.

But mostly parents, students and teachers responded with patience, some annoyance and a lot of aplomb.

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With one hand, Rafael Velazquez gripped the hand of his 9-year-old daughter and in the other, he held a full box of fruit snacks and chocolate bars. 

Together they walked down Evergreen Avenue in Boyle Heights, the girl shouting “Dulce, Dulce! Un dólar!” to anyone within earshot.

Velazquez was on his normal sales route in Boyle Heights, but on Tuesday he had an unaccustomed helper in Yesenia, who was home from Euclid Elementary.

After hearing of the bomb threat, he decided to not go out and sell and instead keep Yesenia with him at home. But his daughter convinced him that they weren’t in danger. She wanted to spend the day on a walk with her dad.

 “So we decided to sell for a little while,” he said in Spanish.

Michael Jones was one of the few parents who didn’t hear the news and drove his two first-graders to Garvanza Elementary School in Highland Park.

At the closed front door he reached Principal Jennifer Gage on the intercom.

 “There’s no school today. Take your son home,” she said.

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“What’s wrong?” Jones asked.

“School is closed for the day,” Gage said.“Come back tomorrow.”

Jones returned to the car looking perplexed.

“I’m so confused,” he said. “What’s wrong. I know it ain’t Christmas. What happened?”

Some teachers made long commutes before learning their schools were closed.

Alan Glasband, a substitute teacher at San Pedro High School, told The Times by telephone that he only received the news from a friend by text.

Another friend, he said, had driven nearly all the way from his home in Norwalk to Orville Wright Middle School near Los Angeles International Airport before he heard the news.

“I’m pretty distraught that they didn’t bother to tell us,” he said. “It feels like LAUSD doesn’t value its teachers.”

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For some students the prospect of an unexpected day off was not exactly welcome.

Jose Chavez, a senior, said he was halfway to school about 7:20 when their mother called and told him to come home.

“I thought she was joking at first,” said Chavez, who goes to school with his two brothers, Kevin and Joel. “Especially since its finals.”

Kevin Chavez, a junior at Franklin High School in Highland Park, said he stayed up until 12:30 Tuesday morning reading “The Crucible” for his literature final. “It would be better to just take the test now,” he said. “I’m more of a math guy.”

The Chavez brothers then walked their mother to work and came home to help babysit their 2-year-old nephew.

They said they weren’t happy to miss school, especially because the delay would probably mean they would have to continue to study for finals even though they were unsure when they would actually take the tests.

For Sarah Nichols of Echo Park, the main challenge was figuring out how to explain the change in routine to her children.

Pushing her 1-year-old in a stroller, Nichols walked to Sandra Cisneros Learning Academy with her sons, 6 and 7, and her daughter, 5, even though she had heard it was closed.

 She planned to keep her kids with her for the day.

 "I would prefer for them to be with me under the circumstances,” she said.

 She said she didn’t want to explain to them what terrorism was, what kind of danger might have awaited. She just told them it “wasn’t safe to go to school today.”

 "I didn’t go into detail because I didn’t want their little minds to wander,” she said.

 Still, they asked questions, her daughter asked: “Mommy, what’s going to happen?”

 She told them: “Let’s just pray about it. Let’s just pray to God that he keeps all the kids safe.”

Employers found ways of coping.

Pinnacle Designs, a souvenir importer in San Fernando, set up a child care center in a conference room. Staff members stocked it with cider, hot cocoa, movies, coloring books and board games.

Only two children ended up using the service.

But the company said it would open it again Wednesday if schools remain closed so no employees would have to use sick or vacation days.

“That way, people don’t have to worry about their kids -- they’re here,” said Alayna Nord, director of human resources.

At the Los Angeles office of global engineering firm Arup, calls and emails started filtering in very early from parents who had to make last-minute arrangements.

Most of those ended up working from home for the rest of the day, said Jon Phillips, who heads the office.

“We’ve always had a pretty flexible workspace, so people know they can take the opportunity to work from home if they need to,” Phillips said.

The firm prepared for such an emergency after Hurricane Sandy shut down its New York office for several weeks in 2012, he said. Employees are equipped with laptops they are supposed to bring home each night.

But Arup has also welcomed any marooned students into the office.

 “Every now and again you’ll pass a desk with someone who’s 12 years old,” he said.

At Harbor City Narbonne, football coach Manuel Douglas spent the morning looking for another school that would let his players practice.

Narbonne is the only Los Angeles high school still playing in a state football bowl game.

Later Tuesday, Douglas said Gardena Serra Coach Scott Altenberg had made his practice field available for Tuesday afternoon, and Douglas said he’ll have the team walk through drills since they don’t have equipment.

“We got no cleats, no shoulder pads, no helmets,” he said. “As long as we have a football and place to use it, we’ll figure it out,” he said.

Four 15-year-olds convened at the Omelette and Waffle shop when they couldn’t go to class at San Pedro High School.

The students said reaction among their classmates has been mixed. Some were taking it seriously but others were blasé.

“Our generation is used to it, that’s why,” said Jennifer De Jesus.

“That’s sad too,” said Solina Garcia.

“It’s been on TV since we were babies,” said Cienna Cruz. “Since 9/11 and through all the terrorist attacks that have happened it’s a reason we should be taking it seriously.”

 The students said much has changed because of terrorist attacks.

They are required to wear neon vests whenever they are walking outside of their classrooms while they’re in session. And they recently had a school lockdown drill. Next they’ll practice what to do if students are outside during an attack.

“Because it can happen at any time,” Jennifer said

Outside, they notice the heavy presence of police cars. They talked about how the school district was being criticized for overreacting.

“How do you overreact to a threat?” Solina asked. “It’s better to overreact.”

Times staff writers Stephen Ceasar, Eric Sondheimer, Teresa Watanabe, Chris Kirkham and Samantha Masunaga contributed to this report.

Twitter: @LATDoug @haileybranson @LATvives @byjsong

MORE ON THE LAUSD CLOSURES:

What parents need to know

Student killed crossing street after LAUSD closed all schools

L.A. Unified defends decision to close schools amid criticism


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