This week’s unhealthy air quality—caused by the ongoing Camp Fire, the deadliest, most destructive blaze in state history—has prompted some schools and most colleges in the South Bay to temporarily shut down. Absent from the list of closures, however, are the vast majority of the area’s public K-12 schools, which chose to remain in session Friday but to keep kids indoors.
According to CALmatters, more than a million school kids—18 percent of the public school population—were sent home this week because of smoke-related campus shutdowns. A spokesman for the California Department of Education (CDE) called the wave of wildfire-prompted cancelations one of the state’s largest ever.
Locally, San Jose State University was one of the first to call off classes Thursday and plans to do the same through Saturday. Several local private prep schools, universities and community colleges will close their doors for the rest of the week as well. Santa Clara University plans to go dark through Sunday.
The Foothill-De Anza Community College District canceled classes at both campuses. As did the San Jose-Evergreen Community College District. Presentation High, a private all-girls parochial school, told students to stay home Friday.
The Santa Clara County Office of Education (SCCOE), on the other hand, is urging public K-12 schools to remain open. SCCOE Superintendent Mary Ann Dewan sent out an advisory, saying that after consulting with public health officials, she decided that it would be best for schools to continue as scheduled Friday but to limit outdoor activity.
“It is my goal to keep students in schools when possible, as schools provide a safe environment,” Dewan said. “Our goal is to ensure student safety.”
The San Jose Unified, the largest public school district in the South Bay, will heed her advice and continue sessions on Friday. It appears that most of the 31 local school districts will follow suit, a trend that drew some backlash online.
Parents responded to many of the announcements on school district Facebook pages by questioning the decision to stay open when so many other campuses—include the all 18 in the Contra Costa Unified School District up in the East Bay—planned to call off classes in response to air quality that became increasingly hazardous as the week went on.
“If colleges feel the need to shut down why are our kids still being required to attend and absences for their health are unexcused,” one parents wrote on a Facebook thread about South Bay public schools being notably absent from the list of closures.
Several people on social media connected the decision to the public K-12 system’s attendance-based funding formula. “Because the public schools only receive their per-diem per student if the students attend,” someone responded. “Clearly the money they get is more important than the safety of the students. It’s very sad because many of these children bike and walk to school each day.”
Others applauded the decision because many families lack the resources to find someone to watch their kids on a work day. And because for many low-income households, schools are the safest place to send their children.
Though the state bases funding on average daily attendance, it should be noted that the CDE grants waivers for safety and health-related closures.
Other parents supported the SCCOE’s guidance because closures would burden many families, especially those that lack the resources to find someone to watch their kids on a work day. And because for many low-income, under-resourced households, schools are a reliable place to feed their children and a safe place to send them during the day.
"This afternoon, the index was 182 in San Jose, 186 in San Rafael and 217 in Oakland; these readings are in the "unhealthy" range. "Good" air quality falls in the 0 to 50 range." https://t.co/HZXBnka7NB
— kiersten (@kierstennamber) November 15, 2018
The Santa Clara County Department of Public Health issued an advisory of its own, directing people to stay inside and avoid exposure until the smoke subsides.
On Thursday, the regional average Air Quality Index was 194—the equivalent of smoking several cigarettes. Parts of the South Bay surpassed 200, which is considered “very unhealthy.” The latest air quality readings are available online here.
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District has deemed every day through next week a spare-the-air day, which means it’s illegal to burn wood, because of particulate levels deemed very unhealthy. Meanwhile, pulmonologists have been telling reporters that it would be wise for workers in the South Bay to stay indoors until the smoke dissipates.
As of Thursday afternoon, the Camp Fire had incinerated more than 140,000 acres, killed 56 people and destroyed nearly 8,700 homes.