‘Palpable’ anxiety at Sonoma County schools as wind, smoky air permeates skies

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Although the Butte County fire was more than 100 miles away, it brought smoke into Sonoma County on Thursday, forcing some campuses to cancel classes and sporting events.

Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University suspended classes Thursday and announced later that day they would close their campuses Friday.

The Forestville school district also said its campuses will close Friday. Meanwhile, other school districts said they planned to monitor the air quality and evaluate activities.

The Camp fire forced schools throughout the county Thursday to hold recess and lunch breaks indoors. School officials also had to comfort students who know the perils of wildfires all too well.

The smoky air stirred anxiety at Santa Rosa Accelerated Charter School and Rincon Valley Middle School, principal Ed Navarro said. The schools share a Badger Road campus, where 126 of about 1,000 students lost homes in last year’s wildfires.

Navarro said eight to 10 students left campus early Thursday due to asthma, headaches or fear. One staff member who lost a home in the fires grew anxious and left, too.

“It kind of caught them off guard to see the smoke come over the hills,” Navarro said. “The reflection of the sun in the smoke gave an orange haze reminiscent of what they saw last year. I think that in itself was troubling.”

Students ate lunch outdoors, but as air quality worsened, lunchtime intramural basketball and an after-school running club were canceled, Navarro said. Announcements were made to students explaining the smoky air, and Navarro encouraged questions and open dialogue about it with staff and students.

As Navarro drove from Bennett Valley to Rincon Valley during his morning commute, he noticed the atmosphere — geographically and mentally — felt different.

“We’re very much in a microclimate right here,” he said. “The energy of the wind, anxiety and fear, it was palpable.”

Parents were notified of an air quality watch, Navarro said.

Steve Mizera, the Santa Rosa school district’s assistant superintendent of student and family services, sent guidelines to principals on how to react depending on air quality levels.

“We used it last year,” Mizera said about the chart. “Schools are reacting differently.”

District officials said Thursday afternoon they planned to open schools Friday.

At Schaefer Charter School, where 133 students lost their homes in the Tubbs fire, leaves swirled as the wind picked up Thursday during a 10 a.m. snack recess. Students noticed the smoke about an hour later, Principal Kathy Harris said.

“We can’t even see the hills,” Harris said in the afternoon.

Some students expressed fear, she said, particularly the older ones who remembered the winds that carried last year’s fires and devastated the surrounding Coffey Park neighborhood. Harris pointed out Butte County on a map to sixth-graders, reassuring them it was three hours away.

“They just wanted the information,” Harris said. “Just to talk about it calms them.”

Students in the Mark West Union School District had lunch and recess indoors, too, and parents were notified.

“We’ll continue to keep students indoors as we monitor air quality,” Superintendent Ron Calloway said.

After-school sporting events were canceled across the Cotati-Rohnert Park district, Assistant Superintendent Julie Synyard said. Students also were kept indoors.

Synyard said schools have good air filtration systems. Schools were expected to remain open Friday.

If school were canceled, “it would be a team decision working with the county office,” Synyard said.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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