Guidelines — New statewide air quality guidelines meant to keep students safe from wildfire smoke

Clear guidelines will be released to guide school districts during summer break, but questions remain

California State Senator Mike McGuire, along with air quality experts and education leaders announced the development of new statewide guidelines for school districts to use when communities are inundated with smoke from nearby — or even far off — wildfires at a press conference in Sacramento on June 4.

According to a statement from McGuire’s office, the guidelines were developed following months of meetings and negotiations between multiple statewide organizations and public agencies. The working group was formed following last year’s devastating Camp Fire, which inundated dozens of communities with smoke and forced the cancelation of multiple school days all throughout Northern California.

The initiative is called, “Get Smart about Wildfire Smoke: Clear Guidelines for California Schools.”

Over the past five years wildfires have destroyed tens of thousands of homes and covered significant portions of the state in with smoke. If the fire is local to the school district, the decision to close a school is simple. However, in the fall of 2018 a thick blanket of smoke from the Camp Fire hundreds of miles away left local districts struggling to determine the best course of action.

“As we have seen over the last several years, wildfire smoke can settle in communities hundreds of miles from the location of the fire for several days and create severe air conditions that are unhealthy for students and residents,” said the statement. “School districts have been forced to make difficult, last-minute decisions on whether to cancel classes, remain open or modify school events with very little or no scientific data at their fingertips. The lack of guidelines and information has resulted, in some instances, in haphazard decision-making. School districts across the state have been requesting data driven guidelines to assist them with potential school closures when their region becomes inundated with wildfire smoke.”

Controversy dogged districts’ decisions during the Camp Fire, as parents and administrators alike attempted to work with EPA information.

The new color-coded activity recommendation chart has five levels, from one, where there are no restrictions, to five, which states “school districts may consider school closures based on site-by-site concerns” and that there should be no outdoor activity whatsoever.

The activities listed on the chart include recess (15 minutes), P.E., athletic practice and training (two to four hours) and scheduled sporting events. It recommends that schools use the California Interscholastic Federation guidelines for extreme heat events to determine things like length of play, rest and water breaks for sports practices or games at level three and four.

One challenge to the new guidelines is that they tell districts to “modify these levels to correspond to the AQI, emissions concentration or other air district recommended method for your region.”

In other words, the districts are still on the hook to determine for themselves whether they are in a level four or five situation.

Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steve Herrington testified before the State Senate in February and asked for specific guidance from the state on the following issues: what air quality monitoring site should be used; when, if ever, schools should close due to poor air quality; the equity issue of providing a clean air environment for disadvantaged students; how to equip schools with filtration that ensures good air quality; when can schools expect to be reimbursed for closing due to air quality concerns; and should N95 masks be distributed to children and/or educators?

“In speaking with air quality experts and public health officials, my office has learned that the science around air quality from urban wildfires is still evolving. There is disagreement over the best air quality monitoring site to use, whether it is better to keep school open or close school; and whether to hand out masks or not,” Herrington testified in February.

The current chart of new guidelines appears to only address some of these questions.

In addition to the new chart, a draft list of other closure considerations was released. While this list isn’t finalized, the final version is expected to be completed shortly and will be distributed to districts before school begins in the fall.

“Outdoor air quality is one factor local educational agencies (LEAs) need to consider when making a school closure decision. LEAs should consider (these) factors, in addition to any other relevant local conditions or concerns, when deciding to close school,” states the draft list.

Under the heading of health and safety, considerations should include indoor air quality (ventilation and filtration systems at schools may offer a higher level of protection than residential systems, supervision (the school environment provides appropriate student supervision by trained and caring adults who can ensure students remain indoors and the availability of student support services, as for many students, school may be the primary place where students receive needed health and counseling services.

Districts are also encouraged to “use an equity lens” when considering closing. Some of those considerations include socioeconomically disadvantaged families that may not have options for alternate child care, the fact that working parents and guardians are disproportionately affected by school closures and could suffer significant professional or economic consequences as a result, students receiving free or reduced-price meals may not have a reliable alternate source of healthy food, students with individualized education programs may not have access to needed services during school closure and finally that schools often provide safe and supportive environments for their students and the most vulnerable students rely on them.

Finally, the draft list encourages districts to consider adding instructional days or minutes to the school calendar when time is lost due to school closures and LEAs that have a foreseeable loss of instructional time due to a history of school closures should consider adding built-in emergency days to the annual school calendar, something most local districts are implementing for the 2019-20 school year. Instead of “snow days” local districts will now have smoke days.

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