It goes without saying that USF students were relieved when classes were cancelled on Friday Oct. 13, a day which fell in the midst of midterm season and right before Fall Break. The Northern California fires had been raging for almost a week and devastated homes, families and the wine industry. Unfortunately, the fire which caused so much devastation also had consequences for those who lived in San Francisco. Announcements from the university cited “concerns about the very poor air quality in the Bay Area” as the reason for the closure.
Looking back, the staff of the Foghorn believes the university should have cancelled classes starting on Thursday Oct. 12 in addition to Oct. 13. By doing so, students would have been better protected from the unhealthy air quality in the city. Smoke particles filled the air and hit 98 on the Air Quality Index. This is nearly 70 points higher than the AQI just two weeks later. The smoke posed a health risk for many students, especially those with respiratory problems.
According to San Francisco’s local CBS news station, San Francisco State University’s campus closed as early as the afternoon of Oct. 12 and remained closed through the weekend. Other Bay Area school districts such as Antioch, Martinez, Mt. Diablo, Pittsburg and West Contra Costa cancelled school on Oct. 12.
While these districts were in closer proximity to the smoke and fires, USF still faced dangerous air quality levels and consequently had a responsibility to its students and their well-being. We understand that cancelling class is not a simple decision and the smoke had arrived at an inconvenient time, considering midterms were underway and Fall Break meant the loss of two school days in the coming week.
There are obviously many challenges associated with managing a public health issue such as air quality. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District declared San Francisco’s air to that of Beijing, a city notoriously known for having a dangerously high AQI level. This led to people all over the Bay to wear masks. Between classes and in offices spaces, students scoured for information about where they could purchase masks. With such a threat coming from the air, the only solution was to remain indoors.
Health Promotion Services was able to offer some masks on Oct. 12. However, no school-wide email was given, nor was there any official announcement regarding face masks for students. According to our opinion editor, who works on the fifth floor of the University Center, Health Promotion services did attempt to hand out surgical masks to students on a first-come, first-served basis. However, this action on part of the University was trivial. There were not enough masks to go around, nor would they offer the protection necessary for the most vulnerable students since they were not distributed effectively.
Students deserved to have classes cancelled on Oct. 12. It was among the worst air quality during the fires and students were well aware of the difference between Thursday and Friday’s air quality. If fear of cancelling school during midterms was an issue, we would ask the question: what about students with respiratory conditions who still had to take midterms on Thursday? They were put at a severe disadvantage compared to their peers.
Hindsight is always 20/20, but the staff of the Foghorn disagrees with USF’s decision not to cancel classes as early as Thursday, Oct. 12. While we understand the context of making such a decision, the benefit would have been much greater had the university read the writing on the wall. Handing out masks through Health Promotion Services helped at least some who required a mask, but it was not enough. An event like this is tragic, but serves as an important lesson for the University when handling a large-scale threat.