Unhealthy air from wildfire smoke postpones Reno schools

RENO, Nev. (AP) — After weeks of debating how best to begin the new school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, school officials in Reno postponed reopening classrooms Monday due to unhealthy air quality and other concerns about a nearby California wildfire.

Washoe County schools had been scheduled to reopen Monday for the first time since March as part of a district-wide plan to combine in-person and distance learning.

Nearly 600 firefighters were battling the lightning-sparked fire that has destroyed at least five homes north of Reno.

School officials didn’t decide until late Sunday to postpone starting the school year.

“As a result of the Loyalton Fire and the deteriorating air quality, we have made the decision that we cannot safely reopen our school district for our students and staff,” School Superintendent Dr. Kristen McNeill said in an email to parents and staff at 8 p.m.

“Also, as emergency services continue to focus their efforts on battling the fire, it means that their support of the school district in the event of an emergency is compromised,” she said. She said they planned to welcome students back to school on Tuesday.

The air quality Sunday was some of the worst ever recorded in the Reno area. The air quality index reached 180 at 6 p.m. Sunday, the unhealthy category for all populations.

When the index reached 172 in July 2018, health officials said it was the worst reading in at least a decade.

The index was 64 Monday morning but expected to rise after noon. Readings of 100-150 are considered unhealthy for sensitive populations.

The wildfire posed an unforeseen challenge for school officials who have been struggling with the decision to reopen classrooms.

The Washoe County Health District recommended to the school board last month that all instruction be done remotely at least into September.

Teachers protested plans to reopen classrooms and the health district’s senior epidemiologist, Heather Kerwin, told the Reno Gazette Journal on Friday she fears in-school teaching will lead to another surge in coronavirus cases county wide.

But the board voted to open elementary classrooms five days a week, with middle and high schools alternating between distance- and in-person learning every other day. Parents can also opt for strictly online instruction.

Many schools had planned to have children eat lunch outside to help guard against the spread of the virus.

School district officials have closed schools before due to wildfires and related evacuations, most recently in 2011.

They also have postponed sports and other outdoor events and ordered students to remain inside due to poor air quality. But they haven’t found any record of classes being canceled over smoke from wildfires.

District spokeswoman Victoria Campbell said Monday the current situation is different than the past.

“An important part of our reopening plan involves the need for increased ventilation of outside air in our classrooms and on our buses,” she said. The deteriorating air quality meant that delaying the reopening of schools was the best decision for the safety of students and staff members, Campbell said.