Nearly all of Sonoma County’s 40 school districts reopened Wednesday, after smoky skies from the Camp fire more than 100 miles away forced school closures for days.
Despite classes resuming, not all families were ready to send their kids back. Santa Rosa City Schools, the county’s largest district with 16,000 students, experienced a 10-percent drop in attendance Wednesday, Superintendent Diann Kitamura said.
“If some families believe it is better for their student to stay home from school because of their concerns about their student’s health, they can call the school and their absence will be marked as excused,” she said in a statement.
The Cotati-Rohnert Park school district, which has about 5,800 students, saw a similar decline in attendance, Interim Superintendent Tony Roehrick said.
Gravenstein Union in Sebastopol was the only district to keep schools closed Wednesday as custodians checked air filters and power-washed walkways. Superintendent Jennifer Schwinn said families were “overwhelmingly supportive” of her decision to keep schools closed in the district of about 750 students.
“What weighed on me most heavily was the decision I made could impact the health of students and staff,” Schwinn said.
Petaluma’s River Montessori School also was closed Wednesday.
Most students had a five-day weekend beginning Friday, when all districts in the county closed due to hazardous air quality. They had Monday off for Veterans Day, and the following day schools closed again due to the smoke.
The Sonoma County Office of Education established guidelines for school closures Tuesday, following a meeting with superintendents to discuss the procedures at the suggestion of Kitamura. The office advised districts to close schools when the Air Quality Index is at 275, within the “very unhealthy” range of 201-300.
The new guidelines also have districts checking the air quality index at 5 a.m. and making the call then on whether to cancel school that day.
“From what I understand, I think it’s a good plan going forward,” Roehrick said.
Many parents, however, criticized the recommended 275 threshold, expressing concern for their children’s health and safety. A Santa Rosa resident started an online petition, urging officials to lower the threshold. Nearly 1,000 people had signed the petition by Wednesday evening.
Superintendents consulted with Dr. Karen Holbrook, the county’s deputy health director, about air quality guidelines Tuesday. Holbrook said the issue is multi-layered, taking into consideration indoor air quality, filtration systems, different kinds of buildings, disruptions to family routines, equity, home safety, and research from federal health and environmental protection agencies.
“It’s more than just a number and dismissing students,” she said. “We had a long fruitful conversation about creating safe air spaces.”
Kelly Kane, a working parent with two kids who attend Hidden Valley Elementary in Santa Rosa, said she had mixed emotions about school resuming.
But during morning drop-off, students went directly to their classrooms and no one lingered outdoors as they usually do. Ultimately, she said she trusts the superintendents who met Tuesday to set new guidelines for closing schools on smoky days.
“I was actually OK with them going back to school,” said Kane, co-president of Hidden Valley’s Parent Faculty Organization.
The Air Quality Index was 154 in Santa Rosa as of noon Wednesday, which falls within the unhealthy range of 151-200.