To Close or Not to Close for Bad Air? No Easy Answer for Bay Area Schools

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Smoke from the Camp Fire hangs over the Stanford University campus before the game between the Stanford Cardinal and the Oregon State Beavers at Stanford Stadium on November 10, 2018 in Palo Alto, California. (Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)

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Hundreds of thousands of Bay Area students and teachers stayed home from school Friday after dirty air from the Camp Fire led many districts across the region to cancel classes.

The highly unusual decision came down to school leaders, who were often left to make judgment calls in the absence of clear protocols.

“This is new for us,” says Napa County Superintendent of Schools Barbara Nemko. “It may be becoming the new normal, but it’s not normal yet.”

Around the region, education officials described consultations with county health and air quality district officials, and protracted discussions that weighed concerns from parents and teachers against concern for kids’ safety at home.

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“This was not an easy decision. It was not made lightly,” says Alameda County Office of Education spokeswoman Michelle Smith-McDonald.

All public schools in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco and Solano counties were closed on Friday. Some schools in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Sonoma counties stayed open because it’s not a certainty that keeping kids home is any better for their health.

“There’s no evidence that children are more safe from smoke or particulate matter at home than at school,” says Alameda County Interim Health Officer Erica Pan. “In some cases air quality may be better at school than at home.”

For Nemko, that was an important consideration.

“We are very aware the we have the best HVAC system anywhere,” she says. “So the air quality probably inside school buildings is as good or better than at home.”

But superintendents were contending with complaints from parents and teachers, and in some cases, high numbers of teacher absences due to health conditions triggered by smoke.

In Oakland, teachers union president Keith Brown sent a letter to the superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District asking the district to either provide masks for all students and teachers or cancel school. If not, Brown said teachers would consider not showing up to work. In some cases, Brown says, teachers reported worse air quality inside school buildings than outside.

Nemko says it was a tough spot to be in.

“I think no matter what we decide there will be people on each side of the issue that will be unhappy,” she says.

How Do Schools Decide Whether to Close?

Public health officials played varying roles in the decisions made by schools across the region.

Nemko says Napa's chief health officer suggested keeping schools open earlier in the week when the Air Quality Index was in the "unhealthy" range between 150 and 200, but that if it rose above 275, it would be good for schools to close. But that was only a suggestion, not a hard-and-fast rule: a spokeswoman for the county said there is no established Air Quality Index cutoff level for school dismissals or closures in the county.

In Santa Clara County, school and public health department officials say they worked together closely before eventually deciding to leave most schools in the county open.

“How do we get our most vulnerable populations access to indoor air space?" said county health officer Sarah Cody at a joint press conference with health and school officials on Friday. "One of the ways we can do that is by keeping the schools open. For many families, schools are really the safest place to send their children.”

But when education officials in Alameda County asked the Department of Public Health if the department would determine an Air Quality Index threshold at which schools should close, Smith-McDonald says, “They said they were not prepared to do that, so the superintendents were in a position where they needed to make a judgement call.”

Like Alameda County’s Public Health Department, the San Francisco County Department of Public Health did not issue any guidelines to school officials around closing schools. Neither department was not involved in the decision to close schools.

The Bay Area Air Quality District does not make recommendations on school closures, according to a spokeswoman.

In the Central Valley, where people have a lot of experience with bad air, the regional air quality district has a program dedicated to helping schools make informed decisions about about keeping kids safe in poor air conditions, but school closures have never been part of their guidelines.

“Our recommendation is that you reduce their outdoor exposure,” says district spokeswoman Heather Heinks. “If kids get sent home, now there’s a bunch of kids who maybe aren’t supervised and maybe they’re going to go outside anyway.”

Still, while Central Valley school districts often have to contend with poor air — Kern County has had 15 unhealthy red zone days since May — it rarely reaches the levels seen across the Bay Area this week.

In the end, the decision to cancel classes always comes down to school leaders, most of whom are facing these air quality questions for the first time. As wildfires and drifting smoke make dirty air more common in the Bay Area, education and public health officials are looking to institute clearer protocols.

Earlier this week, the Sonoma County Office of Education released air quality guidelines that establish an Air Quality Index of 275 as the threshold for closing schools.

Sonoma County's Office of Education released school closure guidelines for poor air quality on Tuesday, Nov. 13.
The Sonoma County Office of Education released school closure guidelines for poor air quality on Tuesday, Nov. 13. (Sonoma County Office of Education)

Erica Pan of the Alameda County Public Health Department says she’s working with other health officials in the area to help develop regional guidelines going forward. She says more important than any kind of Air Quality Index threshold for closing schools is thinking about indoor air quality.

“When the outdoor Air Quality Index is high, we all need to figure out how to best stay inside and have the healthiest indoor air quality,” she says.

Pan says she spoke with school officials on Friday about providing public health input as districts put together plans for the future. One thing schools can do immediately, she says, is assess their HVAC systems and make improvements.

In a press release put out Friday afternoon, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson assured school leaders that cancelling classes because of bad air quality would not lead them to miss out on funding.

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“I want to thank school districts for acting to protect educators and students, and to let them know that the California Department of Education will assist them in any way that we can,” Torlakson said in a statement. “Safety must come first for students, teachers, and staff.”