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Schools Keep Students Indoors as Hazardous Smoke Lingers

October 30, 2003|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

Outdoor physical education classes, after-school tennis practices and lunchtime basketball games were canceled this week for hundreds of thousands of Southern California students. Even in areas far from the wildfires, lingering smoke forced many schools to keep students inside and ban outdoor exercise.

"We're all sad," said Rachel Estrella, 13, who had been scheduled to play in a now canceled campus championship football game Wednesday night at Roosevelt Middle School in Glendale.

Estrella, the captain and the only girl on the team, said the team had been practicing for weeks. She didn't understand why school officials were making a big deal about the air quality.

"We can see the smoke," Estrella said. "People say it's bad for us, but it's not hard for me to breathe or anything."

Administrators in the Glendale Unified School District ordered teachers to keep the district's 30,000 students indoors as much as possible, cancel athletic events, turn on air conditioners and ensure that everyone drank plenty of water.

At Roosevelt on Wednesday, a light haze enveloped the campus. Students were not allowed to play soccer at lunch. And they spent physical education periods playing low-energy games indoors, or writing essays on "How to Succeed in Competition."

"I'm bored," said Roberto Aviles, 12, who had finished his writing assignment during his seventh-grade P.E. class.

In urging that schools in smoky areas drop outdoor activities, Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, said children are especially sensitive to particulates from smoke. Their respiratory systems are still developing, they are breathing more air per pound of body weight than adults, and they are more likely to be active outdoors, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Such conditions could harm students with asthma and other lung problems.

The smoke across parts of Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties contains microscopic particles, like tar and soot, and gases, health officials said. Its carbon monoxide can cause headaches, dizziness and, in high enough concentrations, asphyxiation. Chemicals such as formaldehyde, acids and some cancer-causing compounds also are present.

After waiting a few days to act, the Los Angeles Unified School District on Wednesday prohibited its 713 campuses from holding after-school athletic practices and ordered all outdoor games canceled.

On Wednesday, three Santa Clarita Valley school districts closed their campuses because of smoke conditions and general fire safety. The Saugus Union School District will be closed today as well, officials said. But officials at the William S. Hart Union High School District and the Newhall School District said they had no plans to close their campuses today.

Schools in San Diego County and the San Bernardino City Unified School District were closed this week. Students in the Colton Joint Unified District in San Bernardino County were scheduled to return to class today after three days off.

Michael Fine, deputy superintendent of the 42,000-student Riverside Unified School District, said that a homecoming parade scheduled for Friday at Ramona High School was canceled. The district has banned athletic events and field trips to pumpkin patches.

Pat Mitchell, a nurse at Granada Hills High School in the San Fernando Valley, said that even with restricted activities, some students suffered shortness of breath, sore throats and burning eyes.

Manhattan Beach Middle School canceled "Run Day" on Wednesday, a weekly activity in which students run laps at a park next to the campus. A track-and-field class walked instead of jumped hurdles; a softball class practiced batting techniques but did not run.

Instead of running outside during recess, students at Los Encinos Elementary School in Encino on Tuesday baked 300 apple pies to deliver to firefighters in the Simi Valley, said Barbara Card, a school official.

Some athletes in fire-wracked San Diego County found blue skies where they could. The UC San Diego women's soccer team and the San Diego State University football team drove up the freeway to use the practice field at San Clemente High School, where smoke was dissipating and air improving.

Tom White, athletic director for the high school district, said, "It was the best available air they could find anywhere."


Times staff writers Cara Mia DiMassa and Kimi Yoshino contributed to this report.

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