Smoke from multiple wild fires hangs over downtown Oakland. Credit: Pete Rosos

Wildfire season is posing a challenge to Oakland schools as they balance trying to keep students safe from the unhealthy air outside with reducing their chances of being exposed to COVID-19, inside. 

School and district leaders typically follow guidance from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the Alameda County Office of Education for adjusting school activities when wildfire smoke causes poor air quality. But that guidance was established before the coronavirus pandemic, when there were fewer concerns about keeping people indoors with windows and doors shut. Since COVID-19 spreads mainly through respiratory water droplets traveling through the air and the risk of transmission is higher in enclosed spaces without sufficient ventilation, schools have been encouraged to provide more outdoor spaces for students, especially during meal times when they are less likely to have masks on. 

The dual threat of polluted air and COVID-19 has left teachers, parents, and school leaders struggling to figure out what to prioritize, how to protect students, and how to make school as safe as it can be. 

During a typical year, Oakland schools may begin to adjust their activities when the air quality index reaches 101, a number considered unhealthy for sensitive groups. At that point, individuals who have asthma or heart disease are recommended to stay indoors, including during lunch and recess. At 151, when the air is deemed unhealthy for all groups, all activities are moved inside. At 200, a level designated as “very unhealthy,” the district considers closing schools. This year, when the air quality index reaches 126, or the halfway point in the “unhealthy for sensitive groups” category, teachers and school leaders are instructed to close their windows and doors, and turn on air purifiers.

Promoting air flow in classrooms has been a foundation of COVID mitigation efforts in schools, and in Oakland Unified School District, all classrooms are equipped with air purifiers, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems have been upgraded with high-quality air filters. Windows and doors are also often kept open to ventilate spaces with fresh air. 

“It’s a huge undertaking for anyone at any school to enforce protocols that are very new and that sometimes change from week to week,” said Edgar Rodriguez-Ramirez, the principal of Garfield Elementary School. “It’s hard and there are concerns that every family has. For us, it’s about meeting those concerns with possible solutions.”

An air purifiers sits on a table in Emily Novick’s classroom at Coliseum College Prep Academy on the first day of school in Oakland. Air purifiers and mandatory mask regulations are part of Oakland Unified School Districts’s COVID safety plan. Credit: Kathryn Styer Martínez

Garfield, which hasn’t had any COVID cases this year among its students and staff, followed the district’s protocols last week when there was poor air and closed windows and doors and kept about 20 students with health problems inside for recess and lunch. 

Meal times during wildfire season are also tricky for students and teachers. At schools where there’s sufficient outdoor space, like Peralta Elementary School, students eat outside. But last week, Peralta parent Francesca Nicosia received an email from the school indicating that because of the poor air quality, students would be eating indoors. Since her fifth grader isn’t vaccinated yet, Nicosia made the decision to keep her home from school that day. 

“With COVID, we know that being indoors unmasked is one of the riskier things you can do. We decided, for our unvaccinated kid, if they were going to be eating lunch inside, we were going to keep them home from school.”

Nicosia, who works at UCSF as a medical anthropologist, pointed to research showing that exposure to wildfire smoke can exacerbate COVID symptoms in individuals as a reason to be even more stringent about keeping indoors when smoke is in the air. While Nicosia would like to see more robust COVID precautions, like mandatory weekly testing at every school, she also acknowledged that school leaders are dealing with difficult circumstances when trying to keep students safe from bad air.

“It’s a really tough situation. I don’t really know what the answer is,” she said. 

Jeffrey Rapson is an English teacher at Skyline High School, where he has taught for 17 years. Most of his students have been eating outside this school year, but during last week’s bad air day, teachers were instructed to open up their classrooms for students to eat in, he said. Rapson has two air purifiers in his classroom, which he keeps on full blast at all times, but his bigger concern was the temperature. His building isn’t air conditioned.

“It gets exceedingly hot,” Rapson said. “On that day, there was a choice of keeping the windows closed and having ridiculously high temperatures in the class with little air, or opening up the windows and getting in the bad air. It was not a good day.”

Rapson wants to see the district use some of its COVID funding to outfit all classroom buildings with HVAC systems, so that students and teachers aren’t faced with stifling heat when opening the windows isn’t an option.  

For one high school physical education teacher, being able to teach in person again was a welcome change from the past year and a half, but teaching under the dual crises of the pandemic and wildfire season has been tough. The teacher, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, felt that the school district should make a more robust plan for days when the air quality index reaches an unhealthy level. 

“Keep the doors and windows shut? That’s not a real plan,” he said. “I think there’s frustration, uncertainty, and a sense that what’s happening now is not a sustainable situation, especially given the COVID pandemic.”

Last week, he did activities with students that required low physical exertion, like walking, and his classes typically take place in the gymnasium, and outdoors on the blacktop or field. While his PE classes have 10 to 25 students, he recognized that other teachers have upwards of 30 students in a smaller space than a gym or open field. 

“The district can’t change that climate change and wildfires are happening,” he said. “But neither are they providing a situation for students to be safe in enclosed spaces.”

The Alameda County Office of Education and Alameda County Public Health Department have been working together to issue new recommendations for school operations during wildfire season and the pandemic, and a county spokesperson told The Oaklandside that officials are planning to release new guidance in the coming days. 

Preston Thomas, OUSD’s chief systems and services officer, said that individual OUSD schools can also make decisions about when to adjust their school procedures on bad air days. But he added that school and district leaders have few good options right now.

“There’s a tension there and no one has a really great answer for it,” he said. “This is incredibly complex in terms of COVID and air quality issues. COVID is the acute issue right now. It has an immediate impact on children and staff, so we’re really being mindful of that in all the decisions we make.”

Since July 26, OUSD has had 282 positive cases among students, and 57 cases among staff, out of just under 35,000 students and 5,000 staff. Three classrooms were forced to quarantine during the week of Sept. 6 because of three or more linked cases within the class. The week prior to that, four classrooms were quarantined, down from nine and 12 classes, respectively, during the first and second weeks of school.

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.