BUSD Must Have Ventilation Precautions For Both Wildfires and COVID-19

Classrooms grapple with balancing COVID-19 precautions and protecting students from wildfire smoke.


Disastrous wildfires have become frighteningly common in California, to the point where it’s more of a surprise to not have the summer end in flames. In past years, there have been days or weeks at a time when students had to stay inside because of the hazardous air quality. In 2019, Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) closed all schools for a day due to concerns over staff and students’ safety, entirely caused by smoke. While many precautions have been taken, such as the sweeping power outages last year and, more recently, PG&E moving gas pipes underground, there is still a major fire risk in California. BUSD needs to prepare a precautionary system in case another disastrous period of fires and smoke arrives, in order to ensure the safety of all students. 

COVID-19 and wildfires require conflicting solutions, creating a difficult dilemma to satisfy safety needs. Good ventilation systems are needed to slow the spread of COVID-19. Poor air quality means that teachers must have windows closed to prevent too much smoke from entering the buildings. Closing windows and cutting off ventilation could be disastrous, as the risk of COVID-19 may increase. Because of that, there is no viable solution other than sustaining proper ventilation. But then, in the case of Berkeley’s Air Quality Index (AQI) rising, staying outdoors or in classrooms would be hazardous to many students.

 If Berkeley’s air quality worsens, school may need to be cancelled until it is safe to go back. Both COVID-19 and California’s fires have been catastrophic, facing the conflicting precautions is a whole new dilemma. Schools must be prepared to shut down and possibly consider remote learning in order to protect students’ safety. It is very hard to predict if or when that could happen. While there are currently no ongoing fires in the Bay Area, there are fires relatively close, and fires could happen at any time, unexpectedly. 

In 2020, homes all across California lost electricity to prevent fire risk. Many students have been affected by or know people who have lost their homes due to fires. Additionally, trees have been cut down to avoid fire risk. State parks and forests are disappearing quickly. And for the past 18 months, COVID-19 has been taking people’s lives and forcing everyone to take precautions to stay safe. It feels as though everything in peoples’ lives is now done to prevent risk of one thing or another.

BUSD must have a system in place in the case of poor air quality plaguing Berkeley once again. Health officials have cushioned the impact of COVID-19 over the past 18 months, and hopefully they can do the same with the ongoing fires and air quality issues.