Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Schools that had planned on in-person learning closed by wildfire smoke

Staff Writer | September 15, 2020 1:00 AM

GRANT COUNTY - In Moses Lake and Royal City, where local school districts have begun or were about to begin limited in-person education, classrooms were closed Monday not by the coronavirus, but by smoke billowing from fires across the West Coast.

With the air considered hazardous across the region Monday, according to the state Department of Ecology, including a 326 air quality index (AQI) reading in Moses Lake on Monday evening, officials from both districts said that in-person classes will remain closed until air quality significantly improves. Until then, all students that opted for either all in-person or hybrid learning will be going to school online only.

By Monday evening, with air quality showing no sign of improving, both districts had announced that classes would be canceled Tuesday as well.

In normal years, it would be easier to shutter windows and doors, cancel outdoor activities and recess, and proceed with classes normally, said MLSD Superintendent Josh Meek in a Monday interview. But this is the year of the coronavirus, and many of both MLSD’s safety measures made use of clean, outdoor air to mitigate the risk of the virus spreading, Meek said, including by keeping windows open on school busses and screening temperatures before people enter the building.

“All of those plans fall to pieces if people can’t be outside for any length of time,” Meek said.

For in-person classes to resume, Meek said the district is looking for the outdoor AQI to improve to 200 or less, though even getting close to those numbers could spur the district to restart in-person classes.

“That doesn’t mean that at 205 or 206 that we have to stay closed, but we want to get it as close to that threshold as possible,” Meek said. “Right now people can’t be outside at all.”

At the Royal School District, Superintendent Roger Trail said Monday that the district is similarly waiting for air quality to improve, but unlike the Moses Lake School District, RSD is waiting for the AQI indoors, not outdoors, to drop below 150. Though the RSD had also planned to mix outdoor air into certain settings to assist with reducing the spread of the coronavirus, Trail said that the district’s smaller population would make it more feasible to spread kids out even when they’re outside.

Health officials recommend that children and adults with respiratory conditions, as well as other sensitive groups, should remain indoors until the AQI drops to 100 or lower, the RSD wrote in a statement.

While in-person learning is currently on hold due to wildfire smoke, Meek noted that the districts have prepared for this possibility, and that it could happen again later in the year, because even if historic wildfires across the West Coast were unexpected, COVID-19 has been and will remain the greatest challenge to educators this year.