Student Well-Being

Wildfire Haze and Poor Air Quality: Here’s How Schools Are Responding

By Caitlynn Peetz — June 08, 2023 | Updated: June 08, 2023 4 min read
Students in a 10th grade English class at Pelham Memorial High School look outside the windows of their classroom on June 7, 2023, in Pelham, NY., as a yellow haze of smoke from wildfires in Canada blanket the area.
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Updated: This story was updated to note that Philadelphia schools will hold remote classes on Friday, June 9, due to poor air quality.

As smoke from Canadian wildfires has drifted south this week, blanketing large swaths of the United States, school leaders have had to make crucial decisions about how to keep children safe. It’s a reality experts say will become increasingly common as a warming planet threatens to dramatically alter daily life.

A thick layer of hazy smoke from the more than 200 wildfires is settling over parts of the Northeast and Midwest this week—and even as far south as Dallas—coating skies in gray or orange and triggering air quality alerts, with some areas reporting their worst-ever air quality on record. On Tuesday evening, New York City had the worst air quality in the world among major cities, according to one tracker.

The smoke can be dangerous for people to inhale, especially those with lung or heart conditions. Experts have urged people in affected areas to remain indoors as much as possible, wear masks when outdoors, and use indoor air purifiers when possible.

The smoke is expected to lighten over the weekend, but as wildfire seasons intensify thanks, in part, to climate change, experts have cautioned that similar problems will likely only become more common in the coming years.

“We know this won’t be the last time we have a moment like this, and we need to take it very seriously,” said Jonathan Klein, founder of UndauntedK12, a national nonprofit that focuses on schools’ response to the climate crisis.

So, where does that leave schools?

Although schools in the West, like in California and Oregon, have become accustomed to periods of heavy wildfire smoke, the U.S. regions affected this week are less accustomed to dealing with poor air quality.

Many districts—including Baltimore, Md., and Washington, D.C.—have taken steps to limit students’ time outdoors, moving recesses inside and canceling or postponing athletics and extracurricular activities. At this time of year, graduation ceremonies have also been a casualty. Some schools, like in Yonkers, N.Y., canceled classes altogether on Thursday.

Philadelphia’s school district on Thursday advised students to wear masks while commuting to and from school and moved outdoor activities indoors or canceled them. The city’s schools will hold classes remotely on Friday, as will New York City schools.

Smoke is dangerous for everyone, especially children

It’s important that schools take reports of unhealthy air seriously, Klein said, because the consequences of exposure can have serious impacts on children.

Children are more vulnerable to air pollution than adults, and exposure can significantly affect their lung function and development, as well as brain development. There is some evidence that poor air quality can contribute to the development of autism and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, according to a report released in April by the Environmental Protection Agency.

AirNow—a partnership of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other federal agencies—tracks air quality across the country. The organization’s maps this week have been dotted with yellow, red, and purple in the areas where air quality has been moderately or very unhealthy.

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Image of a group of children holding up a planet outdoors
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What schools can do to prepare for future fires

In a guide for schools about outdoor activities and air quality, AirNow recommends that schools move all outdoor activities indoors (or cancel them) when air quality is deemed very unhealthy.

When an area’s air quality is “moderate” or unhealthy for sensitive groups, it’s important to take frequent breaks during outdoor activities, the guide says. The breaks are important, according to the guide, because children breathe harder when they are doing strenuous activities, which means more pollutants can enter their lungs.

And as climate change continues to necessitate changes to school activities and basic routines, it’s important that school leaders recognize it can be unsettling for students, and it is helpful to have a plan about how to discuss students’ concerns.

A nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey last year found that 37 percent of teenagers feel anxious when they think about climate change and its effects, and more than a third feel afraid. Many also said they feel helpless and overwhelmed.

Ultimately, there’s not much schools can do to control the air quality outside, but they don’t have to be caught flat-footed indoors, Klein said.

The key: updating and maintaining ventilation systems.

Headed into the summer break, it’s the perfect time for district leaders to sit down and evaluate their HVAC systems and identify needed improvements or repairs, then come up with a plan for funding and addressing those needs, Klein said. The plan should go building by building, he said, rather than be generalized for an entire district.

Schools that rely on antiquated technology are likely contributing to the climate crisis—more than 60 percent of school HVAC systems’ energy use is tied to on-site burning of fossil fuels, a report released in January found. That report suggested schools invest in heat pumps instead, as they require less energy to operate and generate cleaner air.

Many districts have started to address HVAC shortfalls in recent years, as an influx of federal pandemic relief funds created an opening to move forward with long-sidelined projects and the pandemic highlighted the need for proper ventilation to reduce the spread of airborne contaminants.

Forty-seven percent of districts that responded to a recent survey by the Association of School Business Officials said they spent some of that money to catch up on HVAC projects.

“This is very important,” Klein said. “We have to get it right and take it seriously. Children’s health depends on it.”

Caitlyn Meisner, Newsroom Intern and Lydia McFarlane, Newsroom Intern contributed to this article.

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