Poor Air-Quality Decisions Put Lives at Risk

On November thirteenth, members of the Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE) issued a decision on a crisis. Given what we know of the impacts of climate change, it is quite likely that California will continue to see many devastating fires in the years ahead, and schools need to be ready for tha

Poor Air-Quality Decisions Put Lives at Risk
Photo by CDC / Unsplash

On November thirteenth, members of the Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE) issued a decision on a crisis.

Air quality, due to the pooling smoke from numerous Northern California fires, had been unhealthy for nearly a week. Yellowing skies and a gentle dusting of ash were just the largest manifestations of this problem; beneath the visible, a rise of headaches and coughing told the more important tale. With air quality levels this high it was dangerous for people to be outside — and far more dangerous for those “at-risk” groups, including older adults and children.

The EPA has set guidelines for air-born pollutants to protect the public from dangerous exposure. These guidelines are represented by an Air Quality Index (AQI), a scale that goes from 0 to 500. Everything under 100 is generally considered “normal” with risks mostly for those who have serious preexisting conditions (such as sensitivity to excess ozone). At 101, the air quality becomes “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” indicating that those with preexisting conditions, some older adults, and young children are more at risk of encountering serious health complications. At 151 on the AQI, the air is “unhealthy.” When the air quality is this bad, the general population is likely to experience the effects, with those previously mentioned “sensitive groups” potentially experiencing far more serious repercussions.

The air quality on the thirteenth was still as high as the 180s in some parts of Sonoma County and, even the next day, when the morning AQI for Santa Rosa showed 155, was still clearly unhealthy — especially when considering that the AQI tends to worsen throughout the day.

And yet, despite this, the SCOE agreed to issue a statement directing that schools may remain open until the AQI reaches 275. This number is within the “very unhealthy” range on the AQI which suggests that serious effects are likely for all members of the population and is accompanied by recommendations that everyone should remain as inactive as possible — whether inside or outside — and should avoid being out-of-doors whenever possible.

Steve Harrington, County Superintendent, provided this response.

“Generally, we believe that students are in a safer air environment when they are in school. This is because schools typically use filtered air while many homes may not have this ability.”

Much the same was said by a spokesperson for the Sonoma State University, which, despite a student protest and walk-out, kept its classes running as normal on Tuesday (before the County had even issued its statement).

The argument that these institutions have better air filtration than most private homes is not in doubt. In many ways, schools are some of the safest places to be in a sustained crisis, given the resources available to them for planning and preparedness (as well as infrastructure such as air filtration). And, in a situation where students and faculty would be endangered by leaving school premises, it would make sense to have them stay inside the school.

However, the County seems to have failed to consider other factors of sending students (especially children) to school on a daily basis under dangerous conditions — for instance, that the transport, itself, through unhealthy air quality conditions, is an unnecessary risk. Neither was there any serious consideration for teachers and staff who need to be exposed, sometimes much more than the children, to outside conditions in the normal range of their duties.

The letter from the SCOE did, briefly, mention consideration for schools which lack the infrastructure to adequately filtrate the air, and for regional differences in air-quality, but failed to make any mention of other impactful issues that might range on a school-by-school basis, such as building plans which are not primarily indoors (but maintain open-air walkways).

Given this, the public is left to wonder what motivation prompted the Office of Education to make this decision. In the letter issued by the SCOE, they recognize that “school closures create inconvenience by taxing school schedules” which, while likely true, seems a poor reason to expose so many children and adults to unhealthy — and possibly dangerous — air conditions.

In the future, guidelines need to be established that protect both students and educators, and funding should be freed up for all public and charter schools to provide for the implementation of air filtration systems adequate to deal with sustained air-quality crises. Given what we know of the impacts of climate change, it is quite likely that California will continue to see many devastating fires in the years ahead, and schools need to be ready for that — if only so that they can also act as emergency shelters when such a need arises. The SCOE admits much the same in their letter, suggesting that “so that families know what to expect” County-wide guidelines needed to be established for when schools could be expected to cancel classes. While this, alone, makes sense, the range which has been decided upon seems irresponsible, as well as dishearteningly suggestive of the AQI expectations for the years to come.

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider becoming a paid subscriber for as little as $2.50 a month!

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