Concerned students, faculty and parents urge administration to cancel classes
This is a developing story. We will be updating this article with information throughout the day.
THIRD UPDATE: Click here to read the Foghorn’s staff editorial on the situation.
SECOND UPDATE: The petition has surpassed 10,000 signatures in under 24 hours.
UPDATE: Classes are canceled at the University of San Francisco through Nov. 16, per an email from the Provost’s office.
A petition to cancel classes at the Hilltop campus because of poor air quality from fires in Butte County, Calif. began circulating on the night of Nov. 14 and spread rapidly.
By noon on Nov. 15, it had over 9,500 signatures.
There is no system in place to filter who signs the petition, but comments reflect the concerns of students, as well as their friends and family members. Those active on social media in support of the effort include faculty and staff.
Signatories across campus say the air quality is impacting students’ health in a way that is detrimental to their learning, and as an educational institution which values “care of the whole person,” many are saying USF has a responsibility to cancel classes.
PETITION GOES VIRAL
The petition emerged after an email was sent out from the Provost’s office on Nov. 14 at 5 p.m. stating that classes would not be cancelled.
The email included that Provost (and acting President) Donald Heller met with USF’s Emergency Management team to monitor San Francisco’s air quality conditions to evaluate the University’s response. “Please be reminded that students who opt to not attend class because of air quality should discuss their health concerns with their professors,” the email said.
The email noted that classes at the USF Sacramento campus were cancelled after 4:00 p.m. on Nov. 14.
Freshman Sayeh Jafari started the petition after talking to classmates about the air quality. She also heard from friends at UC Davis about a similar petition going around. “Hearing everybody in that group chat talk about the issues they were all having and how all of us were really concerned about this pushed me to create the petition,” Jafari said.
After the petition for USF went viral, students began contacting the administration directly. Parents have also called the Provost’s office. The Foghorn, Health Promotion Services and ASUSF Senate have been contacted by many concerned students.
Senate President Sage Hapke sent Provost Heller a statement on behalf of the undergraduate student population, referring to the fact that San Francisco State University has cancelled classes, but USF has not. “I ask that you immediately follow SF State’s leadership actions in canceling classes until 8am on Monday, November 26th in order to protect the health of our community,” the statement said.
In an email sent out right before noon on Nov. 15, Provost Heller said USF would not cancel classes at their main campus. He pointed to the health alert for the level of unhealthy air quality. “Note that this alert does not recommend people to stay indoors; it warns against ‘prolonged outdoor exertion,’” Heller said in the email.
“Students are still breathing the same air when they are sitting in classrooms and in residence halls,” Heller added. “So closing the university would not protect people from breathing the air that is affecting us all,” the email read.
Additionally, Heller said students should rely on official government sites for the air quality index, not “crowd-sourced sites for which there is no oversight.”
The Office of Marketing Communications responded to an inquiry from the Foghorn about the petition specifically. “The university is aware of the change.org petition currently circulating. We take all of the expressed concerns of members of our community very seriously. We assess our operating status based on a number of factors, including air quality websites of official government agencies and in consultation with medical professionals. It is a major decision for USF to close, with implications for academics (in and out of the classroom), residence life, co-curricular activities, staff schedules, and much more.”
In response to the closing of the SF State campus, Heller said other universities in the city remain open, specifically referring to the UC San Francisco campus, which is also a hospital.
Since Nov. 15, UC Davis, Sacramento State University, Cal State East Bay, San Francisco State, San Jose State University, Mission College, De Anza College, Mills College, Foothill College, College of San Mateo, Skyline College and Santa Clara University have announced that their campuses would be closed on Nov. 15 and 16, according to ABC News.
Major universities still in operation in the Bay Area are USF, UC Berkeley and Sonoma State University. UC Berkeley also has a petition to cancel classes, which surpassed 14,500 signatures on the morning of Nov. 15.
At 10:30 a.m. on Nov. 15, when Santa Clara University cancelled classes, the air quality index (AQI) in Santa Clara was 180, according to the EPA’s Airnow monitoring system.
At 1 p.m. on Nov. 15, the AQI in San Francisco was 191.
San Francisco State officials said in their press release, “The health and safety of all students, faculty and staff is the University’s top priority.”
“I HAVE SUFFERED FROM SEVERAL ASTHMA ATTACKS”
Across the University, students are saying the smoke is detrimental to their ability to learn, and in the most extreme cases, can be a threat to their life.
Jafari said, “I’m still having migraines. My roommate has puked. What does an email mean? You know, it doesn’t do anything. If administration isn’t going to go ahead and start up this discussion about whether or not we should cancel classes, then us students should.”
Senior Brett Henderson has a rare autoimmune condition called Churg Strauss Syndrome. He said the air quality is putting him is severe danger, and he is “disgusted” with the University’s response.
“I have suffered from several asthma attacks on a daily basis within this past week, which in turn has caused a flare up of my condition, directly putting my life at stake,” he said in an email to the Foghorn on Nov. 14. “As someone in a high-stress major [computer science], I cannot afford to continue to miss class, even if I am directly communicating with my professors, because class is still in session and I am missing out on the course content that is being taught.”
“Even those without chronic illnesses that are affected by the air quality don’t understand why classes aren’t being cancelled,” Estefania Regalado, a student assistant at USF’s Health Promotion Services, said. “People whose main method of transportation is biking, etc. have also spoken out about extreme difficulties they have experienced in order to get to class.”
Regalado was instructed to respond to student complaints by sending a link to on-campus resources. The resources include CAPS, instructions on how to donate to organizations fighting the fires and links to websites monitoring the air quality.
Regalado ultimately did not respond to the emails because she felt the responses weren’t good enough considering the circumstances. Her boss has been taking care of all correspondence.
Public Safety is distributing breathing masks, but because of the limited supply, they are asking that only those with “respiratory issues” request the masks, according to a Nov. 15 morning email.
Comments on the USF petition reflected the concerns of parents, friends and family members. One comment read, “I love my daughter, my daughter has had tender lungs and asthma, please allow her to stay home and study where the air is being filtered.”
PROFESSORS ARE CANCELLING CLASSES
Some professors at USF chose to voluntarily cancel class. In a Canvas message sent out to his Holocaust and Genocide class, Professor Lee Bycel said, “I have heard from several people about how the air quality is impacting them. It is not healthy for any of us… Please stay inside and take care of yourselves.”
Professor Annick T.R. Wibben, chair of the politics department, retweeted the Foghorn’s tweet of ASUSF Senate’s statement. Additionally, Associate Dean of CASA Charlene Lobo Soriano shared the petition on Twitter.
Some professors, however, are still marking students absent for not attending classes. Regalado said she contacted her professor because she couldn’t walk to school without coughing. She still received a zero for not attending.
Additionally, student athletes have been seen practicing outside, despite the smoke. USF’s gymnasium complex, Koret, has intermittendly cancelled fitness classes all week. “We are taking it day by day due to poor air quality. Our instructors are not immune to the conditions outdoors and also need to stay safe,” an email from Koret on Nov. 15 read. ”You are welcome to come in and work out at your own risk.”
“I think it’s a little bit irresponsible for the administration to not take this into consideration,” freshman Caroline Hartzer, Jafari’s roommate, said. Hartzer suffers from chronic migraines, which have gotten much worse from the smoke. “I think that if they want students to do their best, they need to protect their well-being first and foremost.”
Regalado said, “Health concerns can be addressed by allowing student to either stay in their homes with the windows closed, which will allow them to not be so exposed to the air.”
Gabriel Greschler contributed to the reporting of this story.
Have you been affected by the smoke while on campus? Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.