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    Bad air chokes valley

    Air Quality
     

     

    Wildfires burning in northern and central California have shrouded the Tracy area in smoke, forcing a health caution and prompting one school district to voluntarily cancel classes.

    David Thoming, superintendent of the New Jerusalem Elementary School District, made going to school optional for students Wednesday and Thursday because of the poor air quality.

    The district had kept students indoors since last week, canceling outdoor recess, physical education classes and outdoor sports practices as smoke from the Camp Fire burning in Butte County hung over the Central Valley.

    “At the end of the day, we have to put the kids’ health and safety first, and while it’s a huge undertaking for our part to deal with this — paperwork and all that kind of stuff — to me it’s worth doing,” Thoming said.

    Thoming decided to make attendance optional based on reports from the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. Like many school administrators, he checks the district’s real-time air advisory network each day to assess the air quality, which has been registering at unhealthy levels.

    “We were keeping kids indoors and canceling anything outside, and later on in the day yesterday noticed it was getting worse, and I got on the website again and saw today’s forecast was going to be worse than even yesterday,” he said Wednesday.

    Thoming checked to see whether any other schools had closed because of the air quality and found a few in Napa, Sonoma and the Bay Area, where the reported air quality was better than in the Tracy area.

    He had also received reports that the district’s school nurse had heard from many students about headaches and breathing issues.

    “I said, ‘We have to do something here.’ Even keeping students indoors isn’t working,” Thoming said.

    The students were still exposed to the smoke while waiting for the bus, riding on the bus, walking to class or going to lunch.

    “They are outside compared to being at home, where they are inside every minute of the day,” Thoming said.

    He added that one student suffered a severe asthma attack on a bus on the way home Tuesday afternoon and had to be taken by ambulance to a hospital.

    “That happened 30 minutes after we made the call to do what we did, and we are like, we’re really making the right decision in doing this,” he said. “Somebody has to go first, and I wasn’t going to wait around for somebody else to do it while our kids were suffering. It’s not worth it.”

    About 45 percent of New Jerusalem and Delta Charter students went to school Wednesday, with the rest working on independent study from home.

    The superintendent was surprised that other districts weren’t taking more precautions in the smoke.

    “I was somewhat shocked as I drove by one of the high schools in town yesterday to see soccer players out there practicing,” Thoming said. “It’s kind of like, gee, do you live under a rock?”

    On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency because of the smoke and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District issued a health caution for people throughout the valley. The air district said smoke from the Camp Fire in Butte County and the Alder, Mountaineer and Moses fires burning in the Sequoia National Forest in Tulare County were all responsible for the toxic air.

    The Camp Fire, which began Nov. 8, had burned 140,000 acres as of Thursday and was 40 percent contained. The lightning-sparked fires in Tulare County had scorched a combined 3,700 acres since Oct. 4 and were 55 percent contained.

    Anthony Presto, a spokesman for the air district, said in an emailed statement that the bad air will linger through the weekend because high pressure is keeping smoke trapped in the valley.

    The district publishes a real-time air advisory — available at www.valleyair.org — that monitors the conditions throughout the county, giving updates on the fine particulate matter, called PM 2.5, made of smoke, dust, soot and ash. The particles are 2.5 micrometers or smaller. That’s 30 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair and roughly a quarter of the size of pollen and dust particles.

    The particles can trigger asthma attacks, aggravate chronic heart and lung disease, and increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.

    At Jefferson Elementary School District, Celli Coeville, an administrative assistant to the superintendent, said the roughly 2,355 students were kept inside this week as smoke filtered over the valley.

    “All of our students are remaining indoors for lunch and recesses as well as all P.E. classes are indoors at this time,” she said. “At this point, we’re keeping an eye on everybody. We are monitoring the air quality.”

    Both Thoming and Coeville said that when students return from the Thanksgiving break on Nov. 26, they will re-evaluate the air quality to decide whether to continue to keep them indoors.

    Lammersville Unified School District in Mountain House has been keeping close watch on the effects of the smoke on its 5,387 students.

    Associate Superintendent Thor Harrison said the goal was to minimize student contact with the bad air.

    “For our K-through-8 schools, we are doing a rainy-day recess schedule,” Harrison said. “The kids stay indoors, PE is indoors in our multipurpose rooms, and at lunchtime we are keeping them indoors, multipurpose-cafeteria area.”

    Mountain House High students are also being kept inside as much as possible with lunch and brunch served in the cafeteria or indoor hallways. Harrison said outdoor sports were being postponed or canceled as necessary.

    Harrison said the school nurses have been keeping watch for students with asthma or other breathing conditions who might be having issues with the smoke.

    “Our nurses are very active monitoring those students. Some of those students may be kept home by their parents,” Harrison said.

    Lammersville students will be off all next week for Thanksgiving, but some school employees working Monday and Tuesday will monitor the air conditions before they return Nov. 26.

    Administrators of Tracy Unified School District are also keeping tabs on the air quality.

    Bobbie Etcheverry, secretary to the superintendent, said the district monitors the real-time air advisory network to determine whether to keep students inside. She added that an email was sent to principals of all the schools Wednesday morning alerting them to the poor air quality. Each principal had the option to keep students indoors.

    “We are working together to make sure everyone is safe and out of harm’s way,” Etcheverry said. “Tracy was in the unhealthy zone. Kids could go outside, but we try to limit their activity. It can change so rapidly.”

    Several community colleges and universities in the region announced they were canceling classes because of the smoky air.

    Dr. Shyamsunder Subramanian, a pulmonologist with Sutter Gould Medical Foundation and director of the Center for Advanced Asthma Care and Pulmonary Critical Care at Sutter Tracy Community Hospital, sees the impact of the smoke in his practice.

    “It’s certainly kind of been a nightmare of a year for people with respiratory conditions in this area in Tracy and in the Central Valley region as a whole,” Subramanian said. “It doesn’t help that we are already in one of the worst air quality regions in the country. We have a very heavy burden of respiratory illness in the community, and on top of it the wildfires have just exacerbated it to very significant degree.”

    He said more people than usual have been requesting medications and having trouble breathing, several requiring hospitalization.

    “Typically we don’t see more than one or two flare-ups in whole a week, and in just the past four or five days, we have had almost three or four patients coming in with flare-ups every single day,” he said.

    Subramanian had only two words of advice for everyone.

    “Stay indoors,” he said. “I repeat this over and over, and as hard as it may be in terms of interfering with quality of life. When air quality gets to be so dangerous, the levels of particulate matter in the air become so dense, it is very easy for their air passageways to get clogged up.”

    People with bad asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are especially susceptible, but even healthy people can be affected.

    The doctor said the effect is worse for people exercising because as they breathe harder and faster, they inhale more particulate matter. One of his patients recently took his grandson out for a short bike ride.

    “When he started he took a feel for how the air felt. He didn’t think it felt too smoky or couldn’t smell the fires or smoke in a very big way,” he said. “An hour later he was so bad he had to be rushed to the emergency room and is currently in day three of his hospital stay.”

    Echeverry with Tracy Unified said that decisions about outdoor sports practices and events would be made by each principal and coach.

    Subramanian cautioned that people might not be taking the dangers of the smoke and particulates in the air as seriously as they should because Tracy is not in the thick of the fire.

    “It is sort of an invisible enemy,” he said. “You can’t see it. You really can’t even smell it unless occasionally the smog becomes really prevalent, and so you sort of go about your day thinking, ‘I don’t really see the smoke, I don’t smell anything, so it’s perfectly fine.’ It’s just human nature, I suppose, to not make yourself more aware about this.”

    The doctor advised that people who must venture outside wear an N-95-type respiratory mask that covers the mouth and nose. A scarf or cloth mask has little effectiveness against the smoke.

    Subramanian said he hoped people would come together as a community to watch for people in distress.

    “If you have neighbors who are elderly or on oxygen, to check in on them. Check in on your family,” he said. “I think if the community becomes more aware of the dangers, they can have some kind of community support to make sure people with respiratory illness are checked in to more often — there are people watching out for them and if they get into trouble, they can get into medical care as early as possible.”

    Contact Glenn Moore at gmoore@tracypress.com or 830-4252.

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    Delta Charter Schools are among California's top high quality tuition-free public schools serving students who seek a personalized approach to education.  We provide nearly 2,000 TK-adult students in six unique schools with individualized, personalized college- and career-preparatory educational experiences.