PD Editorial: California needs clear guidelines for school smoke days

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When smoke from the Butte County wildfire blanketed the region last month, Sonoma County schools shut down. Officials based that decision on gut feelings as much as hard evidence. If massive fires are the new normal, California should take a serious, science-based look at how smoky the air needs to be to justify students’ staying home.

That wasn’t the first time schools closed for smoke. When fires devastated Sonoma County last year, many schools took days off. Then, proximity made the decision easy. The danger was here.

The Butte County wildfire was 100 miles away. Air quality here depended on the vagaries of the wind. It wound up blowing this way, and most schools closed for multiple days so that students could stay indoors at home.

At its peak last month, the Air Quality Index was well into the very unhealthy range. The Air Quality Index measures air pollution on a scale of zero to 500. Clean air is less than 100 on the scale. The 100-150 can cause problem for sensitive groups. It gets worse from there going to unhealthy (151-200), very unhealthy (201-300) and finally hazardous (301-500).

When school districts were making decisions live in the moment, they had to rely on air quality forecasts. Officials also had to weigh competing concerns such as the burden that closing schools places on families, especially lower- income families that don’t have ready access to daycare.

There’s also a risk of losing too many school days from the year and upsetting state funding.

These challenges are similar to what school districts face in colder climates with snow days. Principals and superintendents must make decisions on incomplete information. They do their best with safety in mind.

If wildfires are the new normal in a climate changing world, we can ask no more and no less from education officials here.

But local officials could use some help and guidance. Unlike snow and ice, which can shut down a community’s transportation system, air quality is a more-nebulous health risk.

Deciding how much air pollution is too much shouldn’t be a subjective decision made by individual school districts. Research on the effects of pollution on young people exists. State lawmakers should convene a panel to establish guidelines.

Schools, public health officials and medical experts all need a voice in a process that results in clear standards.

In the meantime, school districts can work with local air quality experts. Two air districts serve Sonoma County. Their input helped inform decisions last month, and school officials should not hesitate to lean on their expertise again when smoke returns.

School districts also should have scheduling flexibility. If they must shut down for a few days or even weeks because of wildfire smoke, they shouldn’t have to worry about their state funding. In snowy places, schools typically can add days back at the end of the school year. That can be option here as well.

Educators have a responsibility to protect the health of students. When the air is so choked with smoke that traveling to school puts kids at risk, the only responsible decision is to tell them to stay home.

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