Looking through the smoke By: Sunjin Chang

On Nov. 8, 2018, the deadliest wildfire in California’s history began to spread from Paradise, a small town in Northern California. The fire, known as “The Camp Fire,” was one of 7,579 wildfires in California in 2018 alone, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Both “The Camp Fire” and a wildfire in Ventura County in Southern California have been claiming lives, destroying the communities and plaguing much of the state with poor air quality.

People within the MVHS community have been trying to stay safe during this national disaster, many wearing N95 masks, federally approved particulate filtering respirators. With the persistence of the wildfire, there has been debate surrounding the FUHSD district’s instruction to continue classes, despite the community’s concerns.

The Debate: FUHSD should cancel school due to poor air quality

“We are writing to inform you that at this time, we are planning for all schools to remain open tomorrow.”

Families in the Fremont Union High School District received a steady stream of emails regarding the status of the schools within the district.

Students across the Bay Area began creating and sharing petitions on social media asking for school districts to cancel classes. With thousands of people signing the petitions, several local colleges, such as San Jose State University and De Anza College, decided to cancel their classes. Students from MVHS sent pre-written emails to the Fremont Union High School District superintendent Polly Bove and MVHS principal Ben Clausnitzer. Junior Sean Chen was one of the four authors who constructed the email; however, the idea was not purely Chen’s idea.

“When I came home [on Nov. 15], there was already talk about sending [an email] or contacting the admin [and district] to do something,” Chen said. “So a couple of friends and I just decided [to] do something about this because it seems like there’s a lot of people that are thinking but not going to take action.”

After Chen drafted the letter, he received support from his friends as others began sharing the letter to their friends. To Chen, this was a visible sign that many people were passionate and interested in the subject. The purpose of the letter was to bring students’ concerns to the district, as they felt there was a lack of transparency in the communication process, according to Chen. On Friday, Nov. 16, Clausnitzer made an announcement asking students to stay indoors even when classes were not in session.

However, some students believe there was a lack of instruction beforehand, as teachers still closed their doors during break and lunch times, despite requests from the administration to keep their doors unlocked for students.

“I am still a little bit disappointed that solid action hasn’t been taken like instead of making an announcement [every break time] you can tell the teachers to make an announcement [whether their doors will be open or closed],” Chen said. “Because then that way it’s not as disconnected.”

Though Chen has not had any critical health issues due to the air quality, he has heard from fellow peers who described frequent migraines and heavy coughs. Administration sent out an email early Friday morning stating that though classes would be resuming, students who would like to stay home due to the poor air quality may have their absences excused by the school.

However, there were mixed reactions to this response. Chen says excusing absences may not have been enough. Rather than blatantly excusing students from school, he believes it would have been much more effective if the administration had communicated with the staff regarding their lesson plans for the day due to concerns about missing large amounts of material. Chen also thinks that if school was still in session, the administration should have provided masks.

“Making sure that the teachers have fallback plans as if it’s a day off from school [is more important than] excusing certain kids that don’t want to be at school,” Chen said. “I conversed with [some] friends and something that the administration maybe could have done is to provide masks.”

Junior Arvind Jagdish was one of the students who decided to stay home on Nov. 16 due to some difficulties breathing and occasional severe coughs. Jagdish has been diagnosed with a health issue and periodically receives warnings from medical professionals about poor air quality. After receiving advice from his doctor to stay home, Jagdish and his parents decided it would be best for him to take the day off and recover at home.

“[It’s widely known] that being outside right now is equivalent to smoking nine cigarettes if you’re outside for 24 hours,” Jagdish said. “So for people that already struggle around smoke, even in small quantities, it's not a good idea to [be outside].”

Another reason behind Jagdish’s decision to stay at home was due to the fact that he had a light academic load in school that day with no tests. Unfortunately, Jagdish notes some students who suffer from health issues continue to attend school due to the pressure to take tests. Jagdish admits he was disappointed when the district announced that classes would be resuming.

“Honestly, I was a little bit disappointed considering the fact that they're always preaching safety first [but when] colleges decided to cancel school and then we're still [in class],” Jagdish said. “I'm pretty sure they just think that people are using this as an excuse to get out of class, but the issue with that is that they're undermining the fact that a lot of people are still struggling and suffering right now and the best way that we can help victims is by not becoming one.”

Though there are definitely students taking a break from school because of their physical and mental wellbeing, there are also students who are taking advantage of this opportunity to cancel classes purely because they don’t want to take assessments the next day. As students continued to spread petitions and encourage sending emails to the administration, there were some students who believe that the issue was being blown out of proportion.

Senior Youssef Khater has had a cold for the past week and he believes that the air quality has not aggravated his health in any way. Though Khater is not an avid user of Facebook, he checked the platform for other school-related activities when he realized that many people were complaining about having to attend school amidst the poor air quality.

“I was looking through the comments [and] a lot of people were like ‘I have a stats test tomorrow, let’s hope school gets cancelled,’” Khater said. “And that was really eye-opening for me.”

Khater has kept in contact with some of his friends who lived in Chico prior to being evacuated after the fire. His friends described their hometown as surrounded in smoke, with friends losing their homes and their communities to the fire. Khater believes that with the current tragedies happening in California, this is a chance for the community to support each other and grow stronger, but watching people focused on benefitting their personal interests was disappointing to witness.

“There [are] families that are living in Walmart parking lots right now and they’re getting kicked out and they have nowhere to live,” Khater said. “Then there [are] MVHS students who are completely inconsiderate to this fact and are just complaining about having to go to school.”

Khater brought this concern up on his Facebook wall, only to receive some negative responses. Khater admits that when he read those comments he was caught in the heat of the moment and was disappointed with people pursuing their self-interests.

“A lot of people were commenting, ‘Well, it's okay to focus on both your self-interest and also the people that are affected by the fires,’” Khater said. “But I saw probably 10 to 15 posts of people complaining about going to school and just one of someone actually saying, ‘Hey, guys, we need to help out these people and they give a link to helping out and donating to the cause.’”

Khater agrees that there seems to be a lack of transparency in the communication between the district and the community, as many students have begun to suspect that classes weren’t being cancelled due to financial concerns. However, Khater believes that at the end of the day if students believe that their health is at risk, they can communicate with the school and have their absences excused if necessary.

“We need to keep in mind that going to school right now for us is a luxury,” Khater said. “People in Chico and in Los Angeles, they can’t even go to school right now [because] they just have to completely evacuate.

As some students took to social media to express their concern over classes being cancelled or sending their prayers to the victims of the fires, senior Andy Hsu decided to conduct research regarding the issue. After researching for two hours, Hsu was able to identify that the latest event of this severity that occurred in the Bay Area dated back to 17 years ago.

Photos used with permission by Andy Hsu

Hsu has realized that the air quality as of last Friday has been hovering between 180-200. He believes that once the air quality hits 200, the district should seriously consider cancelling classes as the air could cause potential harm to anyone. However if the air quality is below 200, it should be safe for students to attend classes. Hsu acknowledges the efforts of the administration to keep students indoors, but he also watches common indoor places such as the student union and library fill up quickly, leaving students outside with nowhere to go as some classrooms don’t allow students to eat inside.

“Yesterday the doors to the Student Union were open [and] that defeats the purpose of it being an indoor place,” Hsu said. “This obviously requires teachers to be more willing to accommodate food in the classrooms also, and I would like to see that happen.”

The purpose behind Hsu’s Facebook post was to raise awareness as many students were talking about the issue, but were unaware of the history and facts behind the air quality. He believes that though students make the ultimate decision whether to attend school or stay at home, the school should remain open unless there are severe consequences.

“I just wanted to raise awareness to show how uncommon of occurrence this was,” Hsu said. “I just knew that statistics and data are objective and you can’t deny that.”

In the mediator point of view

"‘[Everyone] is going to be indoors’ and that way [we can] take precaution to ensure safety for the students,” Clausnitzer said.

The phone rings and notifications of a new email popped up on the screen. Then another, and another. MVHS principal Ben Clausnitzer was contacted by many concerned families regarding the air quality. As the mediator between the district and the MVHS community, Clausnitzer listened to the concerns of the parents and strived to find a better solution for everyone.

“Different counties have to make different decisions [and] in my role as principal I get information out to people and so those emails [were sent] on behalf of FUHSD,” Clausnitzer said. “I would say the other part of my role is to listen to people who email me, whether that’s students, staff, community members, so I can be an advocate for our community.”

Regarding the concern that the school should have provided masks for the students, Clausnitzer acknowledges the fact that officially there were no masks handed out to all the students, but if a student were to come in and ask for one, the school would provide them with one.

“We don’t officially have masks like that but some students have come in and said, ‘Do you have anything like a mask’ and we have some barrier shield masks, we obviously give it to them,” Clausnitzer said. “Just like if a student came in and [asked for a band-aid], we would give it if we have it.”

Every county has different policies put in place. The Santa Clara County mades the decision that classes could continue, and the district followed their guidelines regardless of what other counties are doing. In regards to his announcement on Friday morning asking for students to stay inside during breaks, Clausnitzer addressed the deteriorating air quality.

“After school athletics and PE classes were indoors [since the first day] but [Nov. 16] was the first day where we said district wide and countywide, ‘[everyone] is going to be indoors’ and that way [we can] take precaution to ensure safety for the students,” Clausnitzer said.

Looking back at her experiences as a firefighter

“Our filtration units here at school in general are way better than what most homes will have," Frazier said.

AP Statistics teacher Debbie Frazier worked three summers as a wildland firefighter after her high school graduation. A family member of Frazier’s friend owned a private company fighting wildland fires, also known as forest fires, and Frazier along with her friend were recruited for the job. The day after her graduation, Frazier was on the field fighting a forest fire all throughout the day and into the night. Though Frazier was physically exhausted as she had lost sleep for two days, she believes that it was “the best out-of-high-school job ever.”

“I had to learn fire science, learn to use the equipment and then take a few physical fitness tests just to show that I was physically fit,” Frazier said. “We used to drive out in the middle of nowhere and just have the radio on and listen for where they needed help, and then we were often within the first people to show up so they would hire us on the spot and we work hard to put out fires.”

Frazier traveled along with the fires, serving in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. When Frazier saw the air quality surrounding MVHS, she correlated it with prior large fires around the area, such as the one in Napa Valley in October of last year. Frazier doesn’t believe the current air quality is critical enough to cancel school. Though the air quality may not be horrendous, she believes we still need rain to suppress the particulates out of the air or we need wind to move it along somewhere else.

“I remember seeing an inversion layer, where if you have a smog, it actually taps in the heat and keeps things nice and warm,” Frazier said. “I remember noticing that and going ‘oh, fire science’ and telling my kids about it.”

Frazier has realized that a lot of the students had late reactions to the problem. Students with respiratory problems or allergies were impacted more than others and they would call in and ask to be excused from school, yet would not wear masks when going around school when they came back. However, Frazier doesn’t believe that the reactions of the students are unreasonable — she experienced something similar when working out a few days ago.

“I went to work out on Wednesday, that was a week into the fire and just deep breaths hurt,” Frazier said. “[There’s] a bunch of junk in the air beyond just smoke that it’s just not good for us and once it gets in your lungs, [you] can’t really get it out.”

Many students argued that their homes had more effective filtration systems compared to MVHS buildings, but Frazier observed that just last week, the filtration units were updated. Not only that, but the school is known to have constantly changed the flooring, cleaned the carpets and updated the air conditioning ventilations.

“In terms of the air quality, it might be bad coming in, but then it hits that filter and a lot of the junk gets filtered out,” Frazier said. “Our filtration units here at school in general are way better than what most homes will have.”

Frazier acknowledges the fact that many students could use this tragedy as a scapegoat to avoid their responsibilities as a student. She believes that students should figure out a solution to the problem by wearing masks and educate themselves more on the environment to prevent future incidents such as these.

“I think there are a number of students that probably could be making better decisions, and they may use as an opportunity to get out of something [and] I don’t think it’s a smart decision,” Frazier said. “But I do think that some of the students are really negatively impacted and hopefully they have resources and they know what resources they can use.”

In order for students to stay safe with the poor air quality, students should continue to wear N95 masks when necessary and stay inside even when classes are not in session. If students begin to have medical issues that need attention, they should make the decision to stay at home and recover. Though the decision lies on the hands of the students and their families, MVHS will continue to follow the instructions of the Santa Clara County and cancel classes only if deemed necessary.

Photo by: Sunjin Chang

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