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Pacific Northwest schools cancel outdoor activities when air quality is unhealthy

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As if the pandemic was not enough, schools in the Pacific Northwest face another problem - this, too, a problem of something in the air. Katia Riddle reports from Portland on the smoke from forest fires.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: Normally, Portlanders take advantage of every last dry day in the fall to be outside before the rains hit. But on this recent warm day at Irvington Elementary School, parents were picking up kids and hustling them home. An eerie haze of yellow smoke hung in the air.

CLAY HARLEY: It's like a barbecue. It's like everybody's throwing - it's like every household has a barbecue going right now.

RIDDLE: Clay Harley (ph) is picking up his grandson, Roman (ph).

HARLEY: What's up, buddy? Did you guys go outside today during recess?

ROMAN: No.

HARLEY: Right.

ROMAN: So at school, we didn't get to go outside today because of the smoke. We still had to do indoor recess in a small room and stuff.

RIDDLE: What did you think about that?

ROMAN: Well, it made me feel mad.

RIDDLE: How come?

ROMAN: Because the tire swings are more fun.

RIDDLE: At another school a few miles away, Sam Balto teaches PE.

SAM BALTO: Children do better when they're more physically active.

RIDDLE: Balto's lesson plan this day was teaching kids how to strike the ball with their feet. It didn't go so well when he had to unexpectedly move to the gym. Balls were bouncing off walls. Kids were kicking other kids. The constraints led to behavior problems, he says.

BALTO: Any of us, if we were more confined, we would have a harder time staying focused.

RIDDLE: Tens of thousands of kids stayed inside last Thursday. Air quality reached unhealthy levels, and schools canceled outdoor activities. Gabriela Goldfarb is the manager of Environmental Public Health at the Oregon Health Authority.

GABRIELA GOLDFARB: The thing that we are most - that we most care about for immediate impacts are particulates.

RIDDLE: Particulates - tiny pieces of matter carried by smoke. Health officials say they're dangerous in the short term, especially for people with breathing issues. But there could be long-term impacts, too. The Oregon Health Authority uses science from national agencies to put out guidance for schools about when there are too many particulates in the air to let kids outside. But calculating risk is both science and art, says Goldfarb.

GOLDFARB: Actually, I just got off another smoke call, huddling, trying to come up with how to adjust our air advisories.

RIDDLE: It's only in recent years the agency has added this to the list of hazards to monitor.

GOLDFARB: We're trying to strike that balance and give schools and families the tools they need to manage things.

RIDDLE: Reta Doland is a superintendent in rural Oakridge, Ore. On top of the physical effects, she says there's also mental health concerns. Last month, three-quarters of her students evacuated because of a wildfire. A question that haunted her - where did they go?

RETA DOLAND: Are you in a campground in a forest?

RIDDLE: Many Oakridge families were already in unstable housing situations.

DOLAND: Are you in a trailer in a parking lot in one of our stores? Are you in a trailer that has a very bad roof on it, and it leaks, and there's no way to keep smoke out?

RIDDLE: This community has been coping with dangerous air quality for more than a month now. But around here, dealing with wildfires is a way of life. There's a trick people have, says Doland, to manage the anxiety - always have a list of the things you need to take with you if you have to leave fast. Doland has two lists - one for herself and one for the schools, where 500 children are in her care.

Katia Riddle, NPR News, Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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