It was a challenging week for families and school district officials taken by surprise when smoke from the Butte County wildfire over 100 miles away polluted the air in Sonoma County, causing schools across the region to close multiple days.
A quarter of county school districts remained closed Friday as school officials and families navigated the haze of smoky skies and the many questions about potential health risks: How unhealthy does the air quality have to be for schools to close? And should parents keep their children home if schools stay open when the air still could be harmful to breathe?
All 40 county public school districts closed Nov. 9, the Friday before Veterans Day. At the time, there was no countywide standard in place to guide school districts’ response to bad air quality days.
“I am an educator. I am not a scientist, chemist or doctor. We need guidance from local, state and federal experts (and) resources to support the implementation of that guidance,” said Diann Kitamura, Santa Rosa City Schools superintendent.
Guidance came from the Sonoma County Office of Education on Tuesday, when most schools were closed, after Kitamura suggested a meeting of superintendents to discuss air quality guidelines. But the advice released by the county office later that day proved unpopular.
Districts were encouraged to close schools when the Air Quality Index is at 275, about three-quarters of the way into the “very unhealthy” level. The index measures air pollution on a scale of zero to 500; air rated “unhealthy for sensitive” groups, which includes children, is at the 101-150 range.
“Sonoma County superintendents put together these guidelines in the absence of any better guidance from the state. We will continue seeking the best information and guidance regarding how to safeguard student health,” county schools Superintendent Steve Herrington said in a statement.
The standards angered Kim Guy, the parent of an eighth-grader at Rincon Valley Middle School. She argued the county’s standard exposed children to dangerous conditions by keeping schools open during periods of high pollution.
“Nobody’s happy about it and I’ve heard parents kept their kids from school,” Guy said.
Holly Michalek-Byck, parent of three students at Hidden Valley Elementary School, also believes the county standard is too lax and started an online petition Tuesday to lower the 275 threshold. She reminded the Santa Rosa school board at a Wednesday meeting that districts have discretion in deciding whether or not to close schools on smoky days.
The online petition had over 5,000 signatures by Friday.
“It’s going to grow, and if you don’t take action on it, I guarantee you, your community will,” Michalek- Byck told the board.
Herrington emphasized Friday that the guidelines for school closures are meant as a tool.
“Superintendents came to a consensus based on the best information they had at the time,” he said. “This week, we’ve seen districts choose to close at lower thresholds because they lack good air filtration systems or have other community concerns.”
Superintendents also discussed equity and consulted with the county health director about making clean air spaces at school. About 44 percent of students in Sonoma County come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, Herrington said.