Wildfire smoke so thick it sprinkles ash. A poisonous chemical cloud drifting from an industrial explosion.
Neither of these scenarios is likely in Montana, or necessarily anywhere. But they’re among what schools are required to prepare for in their emergency plans, and new proposed Department of Health and Human Services rule would go a step further.
It requires schools to make plans to “seal their buildings to outside air.” Amid cataclysm, it’s an admirable goal. But in practice, administrators are puzzled about how to potentially comply with the proposal.
“There really is no way you’re going to seal it 100%,” said Billings Public Schools facilities director Scott Reiter.
Turning off fans and vents that bring in outside air can dramatically reduce the amount of airflow. Billings schools have fairly accessible shutoffs, making that an easy step.
But making a school airtight would call for protocols like taping door and window cracks and restricting all access in and out of the school.
In a real-world emergency, while dealing with hundreds of kids in the school, “I just don’t see a bunch of people running around and taping up doors and windows,” Reiter said.
That’s left him and other administrators hoping that DPHHS clarifies expectations about the proposed rule. It’s part of a slew of proposals that came down from the department, including mandatory lead testing for water, sparking pushback from education groups who said the process was rushed.
DPHHS pushed back the comment period deadline to Sept. 16. The agency maintains that several school groups were given the opportunity to weigh in on the rules during their creation, according to an email from a spokesman. It also said that DPHHS considered the economic impact of the proposed rules on schools.
While the notion of sealing a school against the smoke of a raging wildfire can seem pulled from a movie scene, other more mundane air quality proposals can have an everyday impact on students.
Part of the DPHHS proposal would mandate that schools regularly inspect their systems that regulate indoor air quality to ensure they're working properly. Billings schools have mostly updated air quality equipment thanks to a 2013 bond, Reiter said, and they already inspect systems regularly.
There’s good reason to. Levels of pollutants like mold, asbestos, and particulate matter can be up to 100 times higher indoors than outdoors, and they can cause health problems like headaches, dizziness and fatigue, according to the Environment Protection Agency. Those problems can be worse for children with health problems like asthma, something that the DPHHS explanation for the proposed rule highlights.
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“Nearly 1 in 13 children of school-age has asthma, the leading cause of school absenteeism due to chronic illness,” the proposal says. “There is substantial evidence that indoor environmental exposure to allergens, such as dust mites, pests, and molds, plays a role in triggering asthma symptoms. These allergens are common in schools.”
According to the EPA, poor air quality can adversely affect student and teacher performance in schools.
But what about when students pelt outside for recess or other outdoor activities? The proposed rules call on schools to consult air quality when considering whether to let kids outside for recess and other activities.
That’s already part of Billings schools’ equation in deciding when to keep students indoors, said district administrator Brenda Koch, especially amid wildfire smoke haze.
“If there’s any worry about it, we do keep the kids inside,” said Koch, who oversees school principals.
Principals and district activities director Mark Wahl regularly consult the Department of Environmental Quality’s information for Billings, she said.
The district has canceled some extracurricular activities because of wildfire smoke-driven air quality concerns in the past few years, and it does allow students with health problems to stay inside even with minor deterioration in air quality, Koch said.
“We always tell principals, use good judgment, our No. 1 priority is student safety,” she said.
But generally Billings doesn’t have as many problems with severe smoke levels compared to the western side of the state. In 2017, Seeley-Swan High School was forced to move classes out of its school building as an inversion kept smoke from nearby wildfires trapped in the valley. The dangerous smoke levels caused health problems in the small community.
“They were right in the middle of it,” said Koch, who previously worked on Bureau of Land Management fire crews. “We’ve been fortunate in Billings where we haven’t had one that close and that level of impact.”
Much of the smoke affecting the Billings area has swept down from Canada or Washington in recent years, and Billings doesn’t have the same close proximity to heavily timbered forests.