In the wake of Southern California’s disastrous wildfires, Stockton was one of the three most polluted cities in the world on Nov. 16, 2018, falling between San Francisco — which earned the top spot — and Sacramento, according to CNN. Despite the city’s hazardous air quality, Bear Creek students and staff were still required to attend school.
The Lodi Unified School District (LUSD) stated in emails sent to parents that they were following recommendations by the San Joaquin County health officer to determine whether or not to close schools.
With Bear Creek’s open campus forcing students to inhale the smoky, harmful air as they walked to each class, many students experienced alarming side effects.
“The smoke gave me migraines and enhanced my motion sickness, so even when I was not directly outside, I felt lightheaded and like I might throw up,” junior Devyn Inong said.
The potential harm from attending school while Stockton’s air quality was so poor raised concern among parents, including Angela Aistrup, who called the county health officer to find out why children were still attending school. Aistrup has three children who attend LUSD schools.
“[The county health officer] stated that the air quality was changing on an hour to hour basis,” Aistrup said. “The air quality was unhealthy, but it wasn’t always ‘hazardous.’ [Superintendent Cathy Washer] was afraid that if she canceled classes, a good portion of the student population would have to be home without adult supervision, and those kids still might go outside to play while their parents are at work.”
But after widespread backlash from the community — including angry tweets, phone calls and a petition with over 1,700 signatures to close Bear Creek until the air quality improves — the district decided to shutter all LUSD schools with the exception of Middle College High School on Nov. 19 and 20, the two days students were supposed to attend school before Thanksgiving break.
Bear Creek Principal Hillary Harrell said that her own concern with closing school was the effect it could have on families.
“A lot of our parents commute and have large families with children that attend elementary, middle and high school, so that could’ve really made things difficult,” Harrell said. “It seemed like a better idea to close on Monday and Tuesday because we had the holiday coming up, and people could arrange their schedules better.”
San Joaquin Valley has the worst air pollution in America. The Guardian reports that a variety of factors contribute to the valley’s poor air quality: “farming and oil drilling; traffic on Interstate 5 and Highway 99; [and] winds blowing contaminants from the Bay Area, Los Angeles and even Asia.”
The pollution caused by these activities sits in the valley; California’s wildfires only worsen the valley’s air quality.
“It’s unsafe,” Aistrup said. “[Washer’s] number one goal is everyone’s safety first, and I feel that she was putting all the other kids’ healths in jeopardy over a few children that might go outside and play.”
An email sent to LUSD staff on behalf of the superintendent states that the district applied for a waiver to avoid make up days and are awaiting a response.