The closed school campus on Nov. 16, the third day of canceled classes. (Photo by Jacqueline Chao)

Smoke disrupts students’ lives

While this is the second consecutive year students and faculty have had a week-long Thanksgiving Break, this is the first year in which that break was seemingly extended: School was canceled for the three days prior to Thanksgiving Break due to “extremely unhealthy” and even “hazardous” air quality.

Shortly after 7 a.m. on Nov. 14, parents and legal guardians received an email, texts and calls per head of school Lee Thomsen saying that all classes were canceled because the air quality index (AQI) was above 200 – “extremely unhealthy.”

What’s AQI Again?

AQI, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, combines ozone and particulate matter (PM) readings; smoke raises PM readings, of which there are two: 10PM (inhalable particles 10 micrometers and under) and 2.5PM (fine particles under 2.5 micrometers). 

“2.5PM particles lead to increased hospitalization for respiratory issues; they’re so small that they bypass the body’s defenses,” P.E. teacher Michelle Myers said.
“10PM particles are more likely to deposit in places in the upper respiratory system, leading to tissue damage and lung inflammation.”

On Thursday and Friday, Sacramento’s AQI was as high as the 370s.

And that threw some students off guard.

Senior Nate Jakobs woke up at 7:30 to a text from his friend, fellow senior Abigail LaComb, saying class was canceled.

“I thought she was trying to trick me,” Jakobs said. “There’s no way we couldn’t have school.”

Senior Yelin Mao had a similar reaction, saying he at first thought he was in a “half-awake, half-asleep” dream state.

However, others said they expected a cancellation.

Senior Eivind Sommerhaug, who is still recovering from his July lung surgery, missed school the day before, Nov. 13, to avoid the smoke.

“It was hard to breathe,” he said. “Thankfully I’ve healed enough so that I don’t feel that (stabbing) kind of pain anymore, and shortness of breath is pretty minimal.”

To curb any negative effects from smoke, Sommerhaug, like many students, spent the days indoors.

“I’ve been staying inside with an air filter running 24/7 to make sure nothing happens, and when I do go outside, I usually start to feel ill with headaches,” he said.

And for active families, such as senior Heidi Johnson’s, the smoke is upsetting the weekly routine.

“I’ve been lucky that I haven’t been too sensitive to the smoke – I only got a headache once,” Johnson said.

“But we usually run as a family at the river at least three to four times a week, so we’ve been going to Auburn where the air quality is a lot better.”

And for freshman Craig Bolman, his family has stopped all outdoor activities.

“We haven’t been able to go on runs and bike rides the way we usually would this type of year,” Bolman said.

“While the air by our house isn’t as bad as some areas, it’s still pretty smoky, so we’ve totally canceled.”

The smoke’s effects aren’t isolated to the outdoors, either.

Jakobs’ gym, the Fitness System in Land Park, has an HVAC unit in need of repair, forcing him to rethink his exercise strategy.

“I cut out cardio when the smoke got bad – I didn’t want to push it,” Jakobs said.

“To combat it, I signed up for a free weekly trial at a nicer gym for the week.”

And just as Jakobs moved from one gym to another, some swimmers, like sophomore Brian Chow, moved inside.

According to Chow, the Elk Grove Aquatics Club had practice canceled from Nov. 12-16.

(Elk Grove’s “hazardous” air quality also prevented the Elk Grove High School mock trial team from coming to a scrimmage on Nov. 17, according to sophomore and mock trial witness Ashwin Rohatgi.)

As of Tuesday, Nov. 20, Chow’s outdoor practices are still canceled; however, to keep the swimmers from experiencing athletic atrophy, Chow has had morning practices at an indoor pool since Saturday.

And even with those precautions, Chow said that he still is getting shortness of breath.

“It’s just with physical exercise, but I feel like that’s from a combination of lack of practice in the water and the air,” Chow said.

“Working out out of the water doesn’t really help when you get back in the water to swim.”

While Chow is still in the valley, some swimmers have relocated to higher, and healthier, altitudes.

Junior Becca Waterson of the Davis Arden Racing Team got whisked away with her swim team to a training trip at Incline Village in Lake Tahoe since they weren’t able to practice in smoky Sacramento.

“We couldn’t swim outside because there was a lot of coughing and watering eyes, not being able to take a deep breath,” Waterson said.

So, according to Waterson, the team rented two houses – one for boys and one for girls – for the approximately 30 members who came. She added that 10 additional team members came independently and stayed with their parents.

And while Sacramento was in the 300s for air quality on Nov. 14 and 15, Tahoe stayed below the 50s.

But that’s not to say the swimmers were problem-free.

“The altitude is definitely hard on us because there is less air,” Waterson said.

Athletes weren’t the only ones forced to continue regardless of smoke. At 8 a.m. on Nov. 15, parents still dropped off fresh and frozen turkeys to masked senior Luca Procida for the annual Turkey Drive.

However, Procida, who has asthma, was still affected.

“I had some trouble with breathing and a bit of a headache, but the mask definitely helped,” Procida said.

But after Nov. 15, getting free masks from the fire department got exponentially harder.

The fire station near senior Emily Hayes – Fire Station #8 (5990 H St.) – ran out of N95 masks on Nov. 15.

Regardless, Hayes said the only preventative measure she could take was to stay indoors.

“The masks are only effective for around an hour in air like this, so there’s not a whole lot of point if I’m not staying out in it,” Hayes said.

“I don’t go outside anymore unless it’s to walk from my house to my car or my car to wherever I’m going.

“I don’t go on daily walks or runs, and I don’t feel comfortable going on unnecessary errands.”

That general discomfort was a common feeling during the smoke break. Senior Monique Lonergan, who’s involved with theatrical and choral singing, has felt the poor air quality’s effects as well.

“The smoke has been very difficult,” Lonergan said. “It’s harder to breathe right now, so my singing isn’t the quality I’m used to.

“I’ve been trying to stay inside as much as possible, and since some of my friends have been using steamers, I think I’ll start using those.”

Despite the physical effects of the smoke, students’ opinions of the break could be summed up in Mao’s WeChat post from that Wednesday morning.

“Life’s biggest surprise is when you wake up on a school day only to find out that you won’t need to go to school that day,” Mao said.

“I, who had almost pulled an all-nighter staying up ‘til 2, can keep sleeping; no one is gonna come and call for me to get outta bed.”

For many students, the three days off served as time to catch up on homework, study and sleep.

“I was generally happy that school was closed because that week there was a lot of stuff all crammed at once,” senior Blake Lincoln said. “I felt like I just needed time to digest and finish it all, so I’m happy I got that time.”

Seniors were writing college apps, studying for tests or, like LaComb, finishing their AP English Literature essays on “Beloved”; sophomores were completing their “Odyssey” essays; juniors were catching up on calculus homework.

But one thought ran through their heads.

“I was worried when the smoke got worse day by day because of people’s health here and over where the fire is at,” junior Yumi Moon said.

Lincoln agreed.

“I understand that many people were suffering and their lives were hurt,” Lincoln said.

“My main concern always was people’s health and safety, so I was unhappy about how (the break) came about and unhappy about how many people have had to deal with tragedy.”

—By Chardonnay Needler

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