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As smoke from the Butte County fire 100 miles away continued to fill the skies and prompted the closure of all Sonoma County schools on Friday, some are questioning if “smoke days” off from school will become a regular occurrence in an era of repeated wildfires.

“We are in a new normal. What that new normal is is yet to be defined, but I think we need to be very cognitive of our environment,” said Tony Roehrick, interim superintendent at the Cotati-Rohnert Park district.

The decision to close schools isn’t one to be made lightly. There’s potential financial impacts, since districts receive state funding based on attendance. But as the Camp fire grew and air quality worsened by Friday morning, health concerns made the decision a clear one.

Districts began to contact the Sonoma County Office of Education at 5 a.m. Friday. North county districts were generally among the first to declare closings and south county districts were among the last, said county Superintendent Steve Herrington.

All 40 districts in the county reported school closings to the county office before 7 a.m., Herrington said. About 70,000 students are enrolled in public schools across the county.

Herrington doesn’t believe smoke days off from school will become the new norm, the way schools in cold states have snow days.

“It’s an anomaly the amount of smoke we’re having here. We’re the end product of this fire,” he said.

While each individual district makes its own decisions on closures, some communicate with neighboring districts. For example, Santa Rosa City Schools, the county’s largest with about 16,000 students, coordinates its closing response with its eight feeder districts, according to Steve Mizera, assistant superintendent of student and family services.

“Because every school in the county closed due to air quality, and the decision was made the morning of the closing, we believe the Sonoma County Office of Education will work to advocate for our districts to be exempt from making up the lost instructional minutes,” Mizera said.

Districts forced to close from impacts of a natural disaster are eligible by state law to apply for a waiver to protect them from state funding loss.

“Safety is the absolute top priority for students and their families, and I thank school officials for acting quickly to close any school sites due to evacuations or hazardous air quality,” state Superintendent Tom Torlakson said in a release.

Schools will be closed on Monday for Veterans Day. The Santa Rosa City Schools team will meet that morning and once again consult with administrators from neighboring districts. If weather patterns continue westward, Monday afternoon would be the earliest schools would announce potential Tuesday closures, Mizera said.

Families can find updated, countywide information on school closures at scoe.org. The Santa Rosa district posts closure announcements to its website and social media channels, and calls families with a recorded message. Mizera said messages are translated into Spanish.

“It’s important for our families to have accurate information in a language they understand,” he said.

Roehrick said the Cotati- Rohnert Park district plans to monitor the Camp fire and air quality carefully throughout the weekend.

“My hope and expectation is patterns will change (and) we will open schools,” Roehrick said. “I’m very nervous about this level of pollution we have in our community. This is not great."

Sonoma State University cancelled all Saturday classes and activities. The Santa Rosa Junior College closed its campuses down for the weekend, and the decision to reopen on Tuesday will be made on Monday, according to a release.

Herrington has been in contact with Butte County Superintendent Tim Taylor to provide guidance. After the October 2017 fires in Santa Rosa, Herrington developed support packets and a checklist for superintendents in communities affected by wildfires, material that he’s shared with Shasta, Lake, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

“There’s been a lot of counties,” Herrington said.

At least one elementary school was gutted in the Camp fire, and thousands of Butte County students are displaced.

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

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