Teachers union calls for school closures due to Camp Fire smoke

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West Contra Costa Unified (WCCUSD) schools remained open Tuesday despite a request by its teachers union Monday to close them until the air quality improves.

After the fast-moving, devastating Camp Fire in Butte County began Thursday, the air quality in West County and throughout the Bay Area has been in a range described by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District as “unhealthy” and potentially harmful to sensitive groups. The poor air quality is expected to linger all week.

Last Friday, WCCUSD kept its schools and district departments open as an “indoor day,” meaning all school activities were done mainly in their classroom, including recess and PE.

The United Teachers of Richmond agreed with the decision to have an indoor day on Friday, according to a letter sent to the district from UTR President Demetrio Gonzalez.

But UTR took issue with the fact that schools have remained open this week despite a lack of improvement in air quality caused by the Butte County wildfire.

“Indoor days can be very difficult for staff because they often lose their breaks and must manage the exhaustion of students being inside with so many people for that long amount of time,” according to Gonzalez’ letter, which expressed concern for vulnerable students, custodians, yard supervisors and other admin exposed to the smoke.

WCCUSD said it is taking precautions such as shutting down heating and cooling systems to prevent smoke from being drawn into schools, directing principals to keep students indoors as much as possible, and cancelling outdoor athletic practices and events until the air improves. It also advised parents to keep their children home if they feel it is best to do so.

When North Bay wildfires last year similarly soiled air quality, WCCUSD closed down schools for two days. Such school closures can mean significant losses in state funding, as state funding is tied to school attendance. Last year the district faced $3 million in losses from those two closure days. Also, as Superintendent Duffy said in a statement last year, students are best served when schools are open.

“Many of our students rely on us for breakfast and lunch and there is no doubt that they are safer in a supervised environment with caring adults,” Duffy said.

UTR said it is willing to make up any lost days in the spring to ensure no loss in state funds, saying students should not be kept in non-ventilated, non-heated classrooms. The union leadership also believes district schools should be equipped with masks. According to WCCUSD officials, masks are not effective for untrained users nor sized for children’s use, per guidance from the Contra Costa Health Services.

To read the full letter from the UTR, click here.

To read the WCCUSD’s statement on Tuesday and for updates, click here.

1 COMMENT

  1. People are forgetting that the toxins in the particulate matter are also from buildings, homes, and cars that have burned. So in addition to the particulate matter from the forest which burned, you are breathing in rather dangerous pollutants. No one knows the long term effects of consistent exposure to unhealthy and dangerous air quality due to these types of fires.

    Students should remain entirely indoors, or schools should be closed. I sure hope the school district and the teachers decide that safety is the number one priority. Daycares and preschoolers should also consider doing the same.

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