Eighth grade students sit at desks in their math class as they listen to teacher Colleen McGeehan explain an assignment.
Claremont Middle School students attend Colleen McGeehan's eighth grade math class on the first day of school, Aug. 7, 2023. Credit: Carla Hernández Ramírez

Air pollution can have a myriad of negative impacts on health. It can cause asthma and other respiratory illnesses like bronchitis and emphysema. Tiny particles of material suspended in the air can irritate the throat and lungs and weaken the immune system. For children, these illnesses can affect their ability to show up to school and learn. 

In Oakland, tens of thousands of children suffer from asthma, a chronic condition in which a person’s airways constrict and they have difficulty breathing.

In an effort to better understand where Oakland children are being exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution, the federal Environmental Protection Agency recently announced a $1 million grant for the California Department of Public Health to partner with the Oakland Unified School District in placing air sensors on campuses throughout OUSD to monitor particulate matter in school environments. 

Along with the air sensors, CDPH will also work to develop a curriculum for OUSD high schoolers about indoor air quality and climate change. The EPA is also awarding $500,000 to the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project to support efforts to reduce emissions and improve health in West Oakland neighborhoods. 

“Air quality indoors can be three to five times more challenging than outdoor air quality, or up to 100 times more concentrated than outdoor air quality,” said Laura Ebbert, a San Francisco-based director at the EPA. “This project is a great way to help young people and their families, decision-makers including the school districts, better understand the conditions that impact air quality and can help respond to climate change pressures.”

In Oakland, nearly 14% of children had asthma in 2020, according to a state survey, and asthma is a leading cause of absenteeism from schools, Ebbert added. In OUSD, chronic absenteeism rates have skyrocketed in the past few years: In the current school year, nearly 30% of students are chronically absent, which means they’ve missed more than 10% of school. During the 2022-2023 school year, 60% of OUSD students were chronically absent. 

Mindy Leung is a senior at Oakland Tech and a fellow with the Rose Foundation’s New Voices are Rising Program, where she works on projects addressing environmental hazards like pollution. Leung also has asthma, which has affected her school experience.

“Whenever I was doing anything like running, my asthma would get bad and I would start wheezing,” she said. 

Monitoring air quality, holding industries accountable for the pollution they emit, and building more green spaces on school campuses are some of the efforts she has advocated for. The new air monitoring tools could boost these student-led efforts.

Beyond student attendance concerns, poor air quality in schools can also affect teacher and staff performance and could strain relationships with families, Ebbert added. 

“It can definitely create issues around community trust if folks feel like the school environment might be contributing to their student’s health issues,” she said. “So we’re really concerned about asthma as a leading contributor to student absenteeism.”

The air sensors, which will be placed in all 78 OUSD schools, will monitor particulate matter, humidity, and temperature, Ebbert said. In the Bay Area, the most common pollutants are ozone, which can cause throat irritation, congestion, and chest pain, and fine particulate matter, which can contribute to irritation in the eyes and sinuses and cause coughing, said Erin De Merritt, a spokesperson for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. Major sources of pollution include freight trains, truck and vehicle emissions, factories and other industrial operations, ships at the port, wildfires, and wood smoke from residential fireplaces. 

Specific neighborhoods in Oakland, especially in East and West Oakland, have been identified as areas with disproportionately poorer air quality because of their proximity to factories and scrap yards, the port, and diesel trucks confined to Interstate 880 in Oakland’s flatlands. 

In 2019, the air quality district received $2 million to maintain air filtration systems in Oakland schools in areas disproportionately impacted by air pollution. This included KIPP Bridge Academy, Martin Luther King Jr Elementary, and Hoover Elementary in West Oakland, and Fruitvale Elementary, which is just below Interstate 580, said De Merritt.

“Children are particularly susceptible to the health effects of air pollution as they breathe more rapidly than adults and their lungs are still developing,” De Merritt said. “Installing indoor air filtration systems in these schools will help mitigate chronic exposure to particulate matter in classrooms.”

State and local leaders involved in the air pollution monitoring effort say it could help schools make changes like increasing how often air is circulated in an indoor space, or improving ventilation. For schools that are near freeways, recess could be scheduled during lower-traffic times. 

“It feels really powerful to give individuals a personal understanding of science and tools to inform their own decisions and bring all of those facets to the table,” Ebbert said. 

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.