Paradise: The Air Quality & Schools by Jack Benbow

As smoke poured in from the dark grey sky, Redwood students began to worry about their overall health, while others fantasies of a potential two-week-long break, with the most essential aspect being no school. This reality came to a crashing halt when late Monday, Nov. 12, all Tamalpais Union High School District (TUHSD) students received an email from Superintendent Tara Taupier. The email announced that all district schools would be open the following day, Nov. 13, and explained that despite the poor air quality index (AQI), consultation with other Marin superintendents had yielded the conclusion that it was safe to attend school.

Students across the Bay Area attending schools that remained open during the smokey air protested the decision by creating a petition on change.org. The petition advocated for the closure of school throughout the week in order to protect student health. Although the creator of this petition is unknown, it collected 129,782 signatures, but nevertheless did not appear to spur action on behalf of the district.

The petition to have Bay Area schools closed due to smoke was signed by nearly 130,000 people. (Photo via Change.org)

The Camp Fire brought hazardous pollutants to the Bay Area for more than a week. This all-too-familiar phenomenon, which also occurred last year during the Tubbs Fire, impacted residents across the county especially affecting those with asthma and other respiratory problems. The email contained some information regarding the health concerns that both parents and students vocalized.

It affirmed that, “The district superintendents [would] continue to work with Marin County Health personnel to make decisions regarding ongoing activities.”

All California public high schools determine the functionality of closing ongoing activities by the Air Quality Index Rating (AQI), which measures the number of particles per cubic meter in the air. There is no legal level at which public schools are required to close because of poor air quality, but all school-related activities may be canceled based on public and local school officials’ opinions.

Input often varies; however, the majority of the decision-making is primarily done by the superintendents of districts across Marin, who report to the Marin County Superintendent Mary Jane Burke. She could not be reached for comment.

Throughout the week, the Larkspur area surrounding Redwood consistently woke up to an AQI in the 150s, categorized as “unhealthy” by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The air quality continued to rise as the week progressed, leading to the closure of school on Friday, Nov. 16, with AQI recorded as above 280 on the EPA’s website.

In areas north of Marin, as far as Petaluma and Sonoma, the AQI was even higher, reaching into the upper 300s and 400s. Paradise, CA, faced the worst of the smoke with an AQI so high that the exact reading is unknown, but was most likely around the 600s, according to Purple Air, an air quality monitoring network.

Thick smoke shrouds Mount Tamalpais as students leave the east parking lot of Redwood. (Photo by Lily Baldwin)

The Lake County area, which is just south of Paradise, was one of the places that also experienced a heavy smoke intake, according to Catherine Stone, Superintendent of the Lake County School District.

“[There was] a wall, a literal wall of smoke [that] just came rolling into our valley. I just went, ‘Oh my god, what's burning?’” Stone said.

Lake County is in a fire-prone zone according to Stone, who recounted that at least 20 percent of the area has burned in the past several years. Although fires occur in Lake County more often than in most communities, every time one occurs the community is reminded of the catastrophic damage caused by engulfing flames and smoke.

“We realize that all those little bits of ash, those are people's houses, that's a car, maybe this one is someone's clothes or toys … They are little pieces of somebody's former life raining all over you,” Stone said.

Stone described the fire unforgettable, which often causes anxiety among students during such a smoky time.

When considering whether or not to close school, Stone’s top priority was protecting student safety. Whether that be closing school because it is smokier in the rooms than in the students’ homes, or if that means holding school because the air quality is better in classrooms, what matters most is the students. In her situation, it was safer for school to be canceled then for it to be opened, attributing her decision to safety considerations..

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