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When should area public schools close due to unhealthy air?

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Public school districts across Sonoma County have new guidelines to help them determine when to close schools on smoky days, following several days of polluted skies from the Camp fire over 100 miles away in Butte County.

The Sonoma County Office of Education established the general rules on Tuesday advising districts to base decisions on school closures on local air quality levels measured by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index. District officials should view the air quality index at purpleair.com at 5 a.m. the day school closures are being considered and are recommended to cancel classes when the index shows air quality at a “very unhealthy” level of 275 or higher.

Several parents reacted with swift criticism saying it’s a health risk for students to attend schools when air quality levels are as poor as the 275 threshold.

“Generally, we believe that students are in a safer air environment when they are in school. This is because schools typically use filtered air while many homes may not have this ability,” County Superintendent Steve Herrington said Tuesday evening in a statement.

The EPA air quality levels range from zero to 500. The 201 to 300 level is considered “very unhealthy,” while a reading from 300 to 500 is air that’s considered “hazardous” and can cause serious health effects to residents. By comparison, air quality levels from zero to 100 are considered satisfactory or acceptable with no or little health risks.

Late Tuesday night, the air quality readings for the county ranged from a low of 129 in Rohnert Park to a high of 182 in Sebastopol. On Thursday when smoke from the Camp fire in the Chico area blew south into Sonoma County, air quality levels soared to over 400 in certain areas. The air quality has improved since then but remained at unhealthy or very unhealthy levels from Friday through early Tuesday. Herrington said the 275 air quality threshold for recommending county school closures was decided in consultation with the county health director, along with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “with the understanding that air quality tends to worsen as the day progresses.”

All 40 school districts in Sonoma County closed Friday because of hazardous air quality. Schools remained closed on Monday for Veterans Day, and nearly all county districts closed again on Tuesday due to poor air quality.

“At first we thought it was an anomaly, but we decided to set a countywide protocol today (Tuesday),” Herrington said.

Concerned for the health of their children, many parents said they vehemently opposed reopening schools when the air quality is near the 275 level.

Barbara Ruch, 48, whose 12-year-old has asthma and attends school in the Cotati- Rohnert Park district, said she thinks schools should close if air quality surpasses the 150 level.

A 151 to 200 air quality reading is considered “unhealthy” and the new county guidelines recommend schools stay open under these air conditions.

“If it’s unhealthy, I’m not sending her to school,” Ruch said. “It’s ridiculous. I don’t even have words for it. I don’t see how they can see that as responsible.”

Rigel Bowen, 39, has two children, including an 11-year-old who attends Twin Hills Charter Middle School in Sebastopol.

Bowen said his children also won’t be going to school when air quality is above 150 and they won’t participate in physical education class if the level is at 100 or higher. Schools superintendents from across the county gathered with Herrington Tuesday to discuss air quality guidelines for school closures at the suggestion of Santa Rosa City Schools Superintendent Diann Kitamura.

“Unfortunately, we might have to make these decisions more going forward,” said Jenni Klose, president of the Santa Rosa School Board.

After spending Veterans Day monitoring air quality, 34 of the county’s 40 school districts announced by 10 p.m. Monday that schools would be closed on Tuesday. The 5 a.m. time for districts to check air quality before deciding whether to close that day was decided because data would be more accurate and timely then.

A handful of districts decided to wait until Tuesday morning to decide on closures. Liberty School District in Petaluma waited, and ultimately decided to keep school open on Tuesday.

“If we had made a call at 5 o’clock this morning (Tuesday) we would have had schools open today,” Herrington said Tuesday afternoon. The Santa Rosa district — the county’s largest with about 16,000 students — learned a lot from the October 2017 wildfires, Klose said. New air filters were installed at each school and the custodial staff has experience cleaning schools affected by polluted air. Meanwhile, Santa Rosa Junior College, which closed on Tuesday, will make an announcement around 6 a.m. today regarding Wednesday classes, spokeswoman Erin Bricker said.

Sonoma State University was one of a small group of countywide academic institutions having classes as usual on Tuesday. About 75 to 100 students walked out of classes at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday to protest university leaders’ decision to open despite unhealthy air quality, said Jason Gorelick, a 20-year-old sociology student. Gorelick admitted it was ironic to protest the conditions by walking outside in the smoky air. He said students and faculty weren’t consulted before administrators decided to hold classes Tuesday.

“This is just as much about the health and safety of students and faculty as it is about the principle of collective decision and shared governance,” Gorelick said.

SSU spokesman Paul Gullixson said the decision to remain open was made by President Judy Sakaki and her cabinet. The decision took into consideration local air quality readings, weather forecasts, wind direction and the university’s effective air filtration system in campus buildings.

A winter Spare the Air alert banning wood burning will remain in place in the county through Friday, with poor air quality remaining a public health concern in the North Bay, said Kristine Roselius, a spokeswoman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

Nighttime temperature inversions will trap the lingering smoke close to the ground “like a Tupperware lid,” she said.

Onshore winds may clear the air next week, but it’s too soon to tell if they will arrive, Roselius said.

Staff Writer Guy Kovner contributed to this report.