A group of Buena Vista Horace Mann teachers protesting the conditions of the school following a gas leak the Friday before. Photo taken by Annika Hom, Aug. 30, 2021.

Two weeks ago, Claudia DeLarios-Moràn, the principal of Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 public school, noticed a strange smell pervading her school and alerted the district. The district chalked the odor up to a decaying rat. 

A week later, on Friday, Aug. 27, hundreds of students and dozens of staff at Bartlett and 23rd streets were evacuated after a potentially dangerous gas leak was discovered. 

Multiple staff members confirmed they smelled gas late Friday morning. Fourth grade teacher Allison Matamoros said she was outside in the yard with students when some commented on a “funny smell.” She called DeLarios-Moràn, who notified not only the district, but Pacific Gas & Electric. 

The utilities company ordered the approximately 480 students in kindergarten through sixth grade to evacuate the premises until they finished investigating (the seventh-and eighth-graders are in a different building). Within about an hour, PG&E workers found a small pilot gas fitting was loose on a boiler, and promptly fixed it, according to a district email sent to staff and reviewed by Mission Local. 

The severity of the leak was not disclosed to Mission Local. An expert source in gas and gas leaks said that the full evacuation may or may not have been precautionary, but likely was warranted; no chances should be taken with a school. 

“First thing” Monday morning, district plumbing and engineering staff met with PG&E at Buena Vista Horace Mann and “coordinated an extensive review of the gas appliances and gas supply.” No other leaks were found, according to a statement by the school district sent to Mission Local.

It’s unclear how many students returned to campus on Monday, but dozens of kids were playing in the yard just before 9 a.m. Though some parents decided to keep kids at home, “a lot of parents are still learning [about it],” said Matamoros. Others wanted to and “a lot couldn’t find childcare” to watch their kids on Monday, she said. 

Because staff didn’t realize what occurred until the end of day Friday, several parents may not have understood the potential gravity of the situation, Matamoros said. She received messages from parents late Sunday night asking more about whether or not it was safe. Matamoros fears for her safety. 

Teachers shaken up by the news demanded that the district allow PG&E to conduct a thorough inspection of the gas systems at Buena Vista Horace Mann, and said the district confirmed that a report should come by the end of the day Monday. 

The situation infuriated some staff, who said the leak is another consequence of maintenance that has been deferred for years.

On Monday morning, frustrated staffers at the school held a small and quickly planned protest around the school, demanding much-needed renovations. They contend numerous dangerous incidents occurred on campus grounds as a result of poor building conditions, including lack of air purifiers, faulty outlets that shocked a student last spring, and classrooms that can reach up to 90 degrees in the summer. 

“We have an incident like this, we are setting them off. They are coming and the anxiety is keeping them from learning,” said Nick Chandler, the community school coordinator. He said that the district didn’t order the school closed on Monday. 

Chandler pointed to other incidents at the school, including the student last spring who was jolted by a faulty electrical outlet. Staff demanded an inspection at that time, and later learned that other outlets were deemed unsafe, too. A stronger electrical system, air purifiers and other significant improvements are long overdue, Chandler said. 

“Long-term, I don’t imagine the students and families feeling safe until some major investment in time and work has been put into the building. I think the confidence is close to zero,” Chandler said. 

Later, Chandler joined about 16 other teachers and staff and marched around the school as children played in the yard. Teacher and United Educators San Francisco member Jael Castro took a bullhorn and yelled in Spanish, “We are here to demand a safe building and a safe school for our families and students!”

“The safety and wellbeing of students and staff is our highest priority. Through a number of Bond programs, the Facilities Department is continually renovating and modernizing SFUSD schools, which have some of the oldest buildings in San Francisco,” the school district statement continued. District and Buena Vista leaders are planning a community meeting to discuss maintenance in the future and “next steps with the bond modernization program.”

One of the teachers, physical education instructor Roji Behr, said that if the report from Monday’s inspection says it’s unsafe to open the school on Tuesday, teachers will protest for a safer campus. 

“Our students deserve a world-class institution and the best facilities,” said DeLarios-Moràn.

This story is developing and will be updated. 

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Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

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10 Comments

  1. Forget “world class facilities” — this is so far from that — safe facilities would be a huge upgrade. The students deserve not to be shocked or exposed to dangerous gas leaks at school. Not confident the district will take the necessary action here.

  2. State law requires every every building used as a public or private school to be thoroughly inspected by the fire marshal at least once a year, for the purpose of enforcing specified building requirements. This is basic safety enforcement to protect our students and teachers. Is SFUSD complying with this law? Based upon what I’ve seen as a SFUSD parent and volunteer, I’d say the answer is a solid No. Either that, or our fire marshal’s office is turning a blind eye to all manner of fire and building code violations. Emergency exit impediments, electrical load issues, ventilation concerns, and general fire hazards due to code violations in classroom and other school buildings are ongoing. Teachers in other Districts have these inspections annually and are even given checklists to know how to prepare and what is required. https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201320140SB1112

  3. “The New London[TX 1937} school explosion and the changes that resulted illustrate to students the role of odor in assessing possible causes of a disaster, such as a chemical release or explosion.”
    https://response.restoration.noaa.gov/about/media/todays-responders-1937-texas-tragedy-still-carries-lessons-avoiding-disaster.html
    Teachers & admins should recognize the smell in 2021.
    https://twitter.com/SundahlCarol/status/1432751451772633091?s=20

  4. Klein Tools makes a handheld natural gas detector that sells for a hundred bucks. SFUSD should get a few with their $1 billion annual budget.

    1. BVHM has been plagued with poor leadership that didn’t like to do practical, non-sexy things like get the building repaired. This didn’t happen overnight. Richard Zapien should be held somewhat accountable for this mess. He spent so much time trying to get attention for being an Equity Principal, that he couldn’t get the nitty gritty done.

  5. Thank you for the article.
    The solution is for our embattled school board to order a complete re-model of Buena Vista Horace Mann.
    Our school was specifically named as one of the SFUSD facilities slated for re-model in the November 2016 Proposition A school bond that passed overwhelmingly.
    But we are still waiting…

  6. Thank you for your reporting, Mission Local! Please keep us posted.

    Many years ago, my daughter was soaked in her Kindergarten classroom by a sudden, leaking radiator. The leak ruined a lot of (teacher and parent purchased) supplies as well. The district response was to avoid using that part of the classroom. In our time at the school, the leak was never repaired. Imagine what that did to the ceiling above?

    SFUSD has a laundry list of ticking time bombs, lest any of us forget they chose to waste time and precious resources in trying to rename schools without individual school community buy-in during a global pandemic.

    What is it going to take for this district to use its plentiful funds in a useful way to make educating and protecting children an actual, genuine priority?

  7. If you want to meet pretty much everyone who takes care of facilities at SFUSD…. Head to Heather Farms tennis center on Walnut Creek . Pretty much everyday m-f you can find them playing tennis. Nice guys but definitely play a little too much tennis. Come join them if your a strong 4.0 or weak 4.5 USTA rated player .

  8. Interesting how we never see Claudia Delarios Moran out there advocating for her school…but when she was trying to get an expensive and severely underused homeless shelter installed in the school gym she was on the news, giving interviews, posing for photos and now…..nada…..how opportunistic.
    Isn’t that the main job of a school principal? All these clowns were out there protesting when Claudia was suspended saying how the school couldn’t run without her and now she’s MIA. Also, someone take away Jael’s bullhorn, she’s so cringe.

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