Students upset about school re-opening despite poor air quality

The Nov. 8 Camp Fire in Butte county is the deadliest wildfire California has ever seen. According to Cal Fire statistics there were 85 fatalities and 153,336 structures destroyed, 13,972 of which were residences, 528 commercial, and 4,293 were other buildings. 

Smoke from the fire billowed across Northern California, closing down campuses due to the air quality. Sonoma State closed campus on the afternoon on the day the fire started because the air quality index went from being in the 50’s to 168 to over 200 by the end of the day. 

Paul Gullixson, the associate vice president of strategic communications at Sonoma State University said, “Conditions were so bad the AQI in our region reached 294 at 11 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 9, which is close to the “hazardous” range. Thus we closed campus through the weekend and continued to distribute masks to all who asked for them at the Student Center.” 

Top university officials kept a close watch on the AQI throughout the holiday weekend and continued to keep campus closed until then. On Monday, Nov. 12, it was announced that classes will continue on Tuesday, Nov. 13th following a three day weekend. 

Although the air quality was still close to the 200 range, university officials decided to meet again on Tuesday at 6 a.m. to make a decision. 

Gullixson said, “When we met at 6 a.m., we saw that the conditions were improving, and the AQI continually improved all day--from 188 at 5 a.m. to 167 at noon to the 150’s in the afternoon.” 

Surrounding local school districts decided to keep campuses closed, including Tech High located on Sonoma State’s campus and Santa Rosa Junior College. This prompted Sonoma State students to be outraged and concerned for the safety of their health. According to Gullixson, the school received over two dozen phone calls and emails from concerned students and parents regarding the smoke. In addition, they received over seventy Facebook comments from more concerned students and parents. 

Many students were incredibly upset with the decision to have campus be open.

Chase Overholt, a junior at Sonoma State University, created a petition to demand the university issue an apology and to create a student voice to be appointed on the committee which decides these actions. The petition has 1,067 signatures with a goal of 3,000. Sonoma State hasn’t to this petition. 

Although the air quality was dangerous for sensitive groups, it was well below where it began in the previous week and conditions improved as the week went on. “We recognized that the air quality was still poor, which is why we continued to cancel outdoor activities, posted signs to keep windows closed and continued to encourage students, staff and faculty to wear N-95 masks when outside,” Gullixson said.