Preparing for Wildfire Season
MENDOCINO COUNTY, CA – In response to the State of California’s recent release of air quality guidelines for schools dealing with wildfire smoke, the Mendocino County Office of Education (MCOE) collaborated with County Public Health Officer Dr. Gary Pace and County Air Pollution Control /Executive Officer Barbara Moed and their staffs to update air quality guidelines and the protocols for communication to keep Mendocino County school children as safe as possible.
The guidelines are based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and were developed in collaboration with local district superintendents.
- At 5:00 am on days with questionable air quality, school district superintendents shall determine the air quality index (AQI). Ukiah and Willits schools can refer to www.airnow.gov and other districts can use the protocol based on visibility (facing away from the sun, determining the limit of visible range by looking for targets at known distances). If it is too dark for the visibility test, www2.purpleair.com can be used to determine AQI.
- School superintendents should consider canceling classes at an AQI of 275 or higher.
- School closures should be reported to affected families through pre-established channels, as well as to MCOE. MCOE will alert the public through a press release and via its website and social media channels.
County Superintendent of Schools Michelle Hutchins said, “Because California wildfires are becoming more common and more intense, dangerous air quality is a serious threat to local students’ wellbeing.”
Each district determines when the air quality is too unhealthy for their schools to remain open because microclimates and local air basins can affect air quality from district to district. MCOE provides guidance, but depending on variables such as the time students are exposed to the outdoors during the day, the time spent walking to and from classes, the quality of the air filtration system at each school, and student transportation, districts may choose to close at a lower air quality index score than the one recommended by MCOE.
After reviewing school-related guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and air quality guidelines from surrounding counties, we determined that schools in Mendocino County should close in the event of an AQI level of 275 or more (i.e., “Very Unhealthy” to “Hazardous” ranges, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency).
Superintendent Hutchins explained, “This does not mean that levels from 50-274 are considered healthy; however, we believe students generally have access to cleaner air while in school, as our schools have high-quality filtration systems, whereas many private residences do not.”
Just as each district may close schools based on their own assessments and determinations, parents must also determine whether it is in their student’s best interest to attend school in the event of poor air quality, “because they know their child’s needs best,” according to Superintendent Hutchins.
In anticipation of another wildfire season, Superintendent Hutchins reached out to Dr. Pace earlier this year to see how they could work together to address the issue of poor air quality and its effects on school-aged children. The Mendocino County Public Health Emergency Preparedness Program had already planned to use surplus funds from the California Department of Public Health to purchase industrial air scrubbers to protect the health of the most vulnerable people in the county—the young, the infirm, and the elderly—in the event of future wildfires. When Superintendent Hutchins reached out, Dr. Pace informed her that some of the scrubbers were intended for county schools.
An air scrubber is a portable filtration system that removes particles, gasses, and/or chemicals from the air within a given area. These machines draw air in from the surrounding environment and pass it through a series of filters to remove contaminants.
Public Health will distribute the scrubbers to key community partners to maximize their benefit. Five units designed for use around children will be on permanent loan to the Office of Education for use in local schools to reduce students’ exposure to air pollution. The scrubbers will be strategically placed in classrooms and/or gymnasiums for those with breathing issues or who have compromised immunity.
Dr. Pace explained that children and older adults are more likely to be affected by health threats from smoke than any other age group. Children’s airways are still developing, and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults.
Superintendent Hutchins said, “The wellbeing of local students remains our top priority. We hope all this preparation is unnecessary but given the increase in wildfire activity in recent years, it’s best to be ready.”