Despite wildfire smoke settling over Fresno on Thursday, sports were OK'd by Fresno Unified. Picture Credit: Joey Hall

What's at stake?

Experts say schools in Fresno and Clovis need to do more to protect children from unhealthy air.

Last week, a wildfire smoke cloud moved over Fresno, triggering an Air Quality Alert for the entire central San Joaquin Valley.

Clovis and Fresno Unified, the region’s two largest school districts, were caught off guard and took no action despite air-quality readings that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says should have forced students inside and postponed sporting events.

However, neither district uses a federal wildfire smoke forecast system to help determine outdoor activity for their students.

FUSD spokesperson Nikki Henry said it was OK for students to play sports during Wednesday’s federal air quality alert.

She pointed to Fresno Unified’s air quality guidelines, which allow most children to exercise during recess and sporting events with air pollution that is more than twice as severe as the EPA’s limit for short-term air exposure.

The Air Quality Index (AQI) can rise as high as 160 and still be OK to play outdoor sports, according to FUSD guidelines. The district only issues an alert to athletic directors about bad air quality when the AQI hits 170.

However, the EPA’s recommended limit for short-term exposure is 100.

In 2021, the last time heavy wildfire smoke impacts hit Fresno, FUSD allowed football practices to go for hours as the AQI hit over 200.

Clovis Unified didn’t have sports on Wednesday due to an early school day, said Clovis Unified spokesperson Kelly Avants.

At Clovis Unified, administrators are told if they can see smoke, they shouldn’t let children play outside, Avants said.

None of Fresno Unified’s levels are safe for children to breathe, said Kevin Hamilton, the co-director of the Central California Asthma Collaborative.

“Why would you expose anybody to that much pollution,” Hamilton said, “especially a young person with a developing body?”

Air Quality policies at odds with EPA?

One of the key decisions about FUSD’s outdoor activity guidelines is what the district considers a “sensitive” individual.

FUSD defines a sensitive individual as a student with a specific medical definition on file, Henry said via email.

This is at odds with the EPA’s definition. According to the EPA, all students in FUSD should be considered sensitive individuals.

Due to their higher exposures and developing bodies, children suffer lifelong consequences from PM2.5 pollution, including altered brain structure, increased risk for autism, depression, schizophrenia, suicide later in life, obesity, and asthma. Even small increases in PM2.5 exposure can increase children’s risk for self-harm by 42% later in life.

If FUSD followed the EPA’s definition, their outdoor activity guidelines would trigger recess and PE to be canceled when the AQI goes over 100 – precisely the EPA’s limit for short-term air exposure.

FUSD’s existing approach, by singling out students with medical conditions, sends the wrong message, said Hamilton.

“It carries forward a bias that if you have asthma, you’re weak,” he said. “You’re a ‘sensitive’ child.”

During wildfire season, Clovis teachers have been ordered to turn up their HEPA filters to the max, said Avants.

Clovis Unified’s 7-foot-tall air filters scrub classroom air 12 times an hour – at a rate of 1500 cubic feet of clean air per second.

Fresno Unified has a much smaller system installed – a box that filters 40 cubic feet per second. The filter does not meet official ASHRAE or CDC guidelines.

On Thursday, FUSD’s Henry confirmed the district is still using the small boxes.

Wildfire smoke forecast systems not used by schools

With the wildfire smoke season in full swing, neither school district utilizes NOAA’s forecast system to monitor air quality.

The smoke forecast system uses low-earth satellites and supercomputers to create a high-definition map of future wildfire smoke concentration across the San Joaquin Valley.

In contrast, FUSD and CUSD rely on an older, slower-to-respond system from the Air District, RAAN, which takes the average AQI from the previous hour.

In fast-changing conditions like a drifting smoke cloud, RAAN’s air quality information can be unreliable.

Avants said RAAN’s hourly average can be a “vulnerability” during wildfire smoke season. 

She said that while CUSD isn’t using the wildfire smoke forecast system yet, the district has experience using ozone forecasts to change sports schedules.

“We work with our teams to either adjust practice times if it’s a situation in which maybe air quality is better at certain times of the day,” she said.

Avants said CUSD is “poised” to use similar forecast systems “if it becomes appropriate to do so.”

To cancel outdoor events due to bad air quality, Avants said the district often needs a forecast to tell them several hours in advance.

But it’s a balancing act, she said. If the district bases its decisions on a forecast that’s too far in advance, it increases the likelihood of the forecast being wrong.

“There’s been times where something was forecast, and we made huge adjustments, and then suddenly the weather pattern changed, and everything was fine. We didn’t want to have parents and students taking the forecast less seriously.”

Hamilton said FUSD and CUSD should look into using the smoke forecast system.

“You would expect a school district to use whatever tools are available to it to protect the health of children,” he said. “To not use it: it just doesn’t make any sense.”

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Gregory Weaver is a staff writer for Fresnoland who covers the environment, air quality, and development.

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1 Comment

  1. Given the numerous flaws in federal and state air-quality laws and regulations (Title I of the Clean Air Act is particularly egregious in that respect), perhaps the aforementioned school districts should simply adhere to the best-available scientific evidence instead to determine when to restrict or postpone outdoor activities. The EPA’s guidance is NOT helpful as was demonstrated yet again when it took many hours more than it should have for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to call a Spare The Air alert due to the wildfire smoke.

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