School’s out

Districts, employers wrestle with how to respond to Camp Fire’s collateral impacts

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the November 21, 2018, issue.

American River College was late to join area schools last week in cancelling classes because of wildfire smoke that has choked the region, to the frustration of ARC students and staff writing on the community college’s Facebook page.

“All campuses should be closed today. UCD and CSU made the decision to put student and staff health FIRST,” wrote one Facebook user last Tuesday, referring to UC Davis and CSU Sacramento, which cancelled classes that day. Another urged commenters to sign a petition calling for ARC to temporarily close.

ARC and its peers in the Los Rios Community College District later said they’d close, as did another holdout, Sacramento City Unified School District. The districts changed course after students, staff and parents complained on social media that going to campus exposed them to bad air. While SCUSD said administrators witnessed no smoke indoors, the district said its aging ventilation systems were not a match for the smog.

The initial resistance to closing speaks to the novelty of coping with smoke from the historically deadly Camp Fire in Butte County. Climate change increases the likelihood of extended drought, which makes such powerful fires possible so late in the year. Until recently, California’s fire season generally occurred outside the normal school year.

“I have not seen anything like this,” said Los Rios spokesperson Gabe Ross.

SCUSD spokesperson Alex Barrios said the district had never before considered whether to close over poor air quality, though it had kept students indoors before.

Most campuses were to remain closed through the Thanksgiving break. The ramifications of closing highlight the economic impacts of climate change. At Los Rios, hourly workers losing shifts because of smoke days won’t receive pay for time they don’t work, Ross said. Salaried workers’ pay is not impacted.

Climate change’s impact on the economy is often presented in faceless, macro terms like gross domestic product.

“You’re talking about one specific mechanism, and it’s probably one of several,” said Ric Colacito, an economist at UNC Chapel Hill who has studied the impacts of global warming.

Reasons the districts gave for remaining open were similar: Shutting down involved cutting off resources students depend on. For Los Rios this included health clinic and counseling services. For SCUSD, it was free meals and a secure space for kids to be while parents worked. School cancellation could mean parents with hourly jobs have to stay home and lose pay.

“Those are the realities that our families deal with, especially in a district like ours where 70 percent of our students are on free or reduced lunch,” Barrios said.

After posting on Facebook it would cancel classes, SCUSD announced bag lunches for students would be available for pickup.

“We understand the closing of schools tomorrow is an inconvenience and some families may need assistance in obtaining a meal for their children tomorrow,” read a district statement.