Due to diminishing air quality, all schools in the Mountain View Los Altos, Mountain View Whisman, and Los Altos school districts did not hold class on Friday, November 16. The MVLA High School District sent Los Altos and Mountain View High School families an email announcement at 11:30 pm on Thursday, November 15 despite previous claims from the Santa Clara County Office of Education that school would still be in session that Friday.
As the local air quality index (AQI) neared 200 on that Thursday due to spreading smoke from the northern California Camp Fire, all of the superintendents in Santa Clara County held two conference calls to discuss weather forecasts, AQI trends and concerns from parents, students and the Santa Clara County Public Health Department. By the end of the second meeting, most agreed that keeping schools open would be the safest and healthiest option for students.
“[We’ve been] thinking about how [to give] our most vulnerable populations access to indoor air space, and one of the best ways to do that is to keep the schools open,” Santa Clara County Department of Health Deputy Health Officer Sara Cody said. “For many families, schools are the safest place they have to send their children where they can shelter indoors and be monitored.”
However, when MVW superintendent Ayindé Rudolph decided to cancel class after the second press conference, MVLA superintendent Jeff Harding immediately did the same regardless of emails sent earlier that day that instructed MVLA families to ignore claims about school closure. Out of the county’s 31 public school districts, MVLA, MVW, and LASD were the only three that did not hold class.
“The factor that made me change my mind and close the schools was that Mountain View Whisman decided to close,” Harding said. “Mountain View Whisman is one of our two feeder districts, and many of [their] students have siblings that attend our schools. When they made a decision to close, I immediately made a decision to close, and so did [the] Los Altos [school district].”
All teachers who planned to hold exams on that Friday had to reschedule their tests at the last minute and move them to the following week. Still, regardless of the short notice and subsequent delays, environmental science teacher Greg Stoehr believes that Harding made the right decision.
“The particulate matter was high enough such that even indoors it was pretty [bad],” Stoehr said. “In the classroom, the doors open a lot, so the air inside was just as bad as the air outside. It wasn’t a horrible idea to have a day off.”
According to Stoehr, this is the first and only “smog day” he can remember— in all his 30 years of teaching, the school has never officially closed for inclement natural events like floods or power outages. Even after the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake struck the Bay Area on October 17, 1989, class was still held on that Tuesday.
Given this situation, the Santa Clara County Department of Education has agreed to accept waivers that will allow schools to bypass the 180-day school year requirement. This means that regardless of lost class time, schools that submit this form are not required to add extra days to the school year to compensate for closure.
In the future, if another emergency school closure needs to be considered again, it will ultimately be the superintendent who evaluates the situation to make the final decision.
“There’s no established standard, no formulaic process used— we [just] look at the totality of the situation to make decisions [on] whether schools [will] close [or not],” Harding said. “I [also] look for the Department of Public Health to make a recommendation that we close schools. We take [most of] our direction from that organization.”