When Air Quality Dips, P.E. Moves Indoors in the Central Valley

Boris Elementary School opens in August, when it and other Central Valley schools must grapple with poor air quality.
Boris Elementary School opens in August, when it and other Central Valley schools must grapple with poor air quality.

The Central Valley has long been plagued with some of the dirtiest air in the nation. It usually hits those with the most vulnerable lungs the hardest, including elementary school-age kids with asthma.

While the Valley’s air is trending in the right direction, it’s still a challenge for schools to facilitate physical education and outdoor sports, especially with the pressure to fight childhood obesity by keeping kids active.

Schools are turning to a number of solutions that leverage a real-time air-quality monitoring network with creative ways to keep kids moving even when they need to head indoors. As we inch towards the summer months and the temperature rises, schools are working on their alternative P.E. plans.

A sign that the Central California Asthma Collaborative encourages schools to post.
A sign that the Central California Asthma Collaborative encourages schools to post.

Behind the problem

Successive years of poor air quality have taken a toll on students in the San Joaquin Valley. According to the Central California Asthma Collaborative, 19.7 percent of the area’s children aged 5 to 17 have asthma. The state average for that age group is 17.1 percent. The rate is particularly bad in Merced County, where the number of kids with asthma stands at 35.2 percent, and in Fresno County, where it’s 23.6 percent.

Jovan Pantelic, an assistant professional researcher at U.C. Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment, said the impact of air pollution on children is substantial, given that their lungs are developing and that breathing in smog can create long-term health effects.

“For children correlation is much stronger to the respiratory diseases,” he said. “Exposure to air pollution is also associated with increased allergic reactions, and upper and lower respiratory tract diseases like flu due to inflamed lower airways. Longitudinal studies have shown that children with exposure to air pollution have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular problems.”

There are a number of factors, both environmental and human-caused, that work against the region. It sits in a bowl, with the Sierra Nevada mountain range to the east and coastal ranges on the west. And, as home to 3.5 million people, nearly two million cars are on the road every day, according to Valley Clean Air Now. As one of the nation’s major agricultural regions, methane gas, agriculture burns and diesel truck transportation punish the area’s air.

Things are improving, and the region had its cleanest July on record last year. But there are still plenty of health hazards that particularly impact children according to Destiny Rodriguez, director of communication and outreach for the Central California Asthma Collaborative. Her organization pushes for awareness of issues surrounding asthma and helps people learn how to manage the condition during poor air days.

“In the winter we have fog, lots of smoke from chimney fires and if you go outside and breathe the air during a level five day it’s like you’re sunburning your lungs,” she said. “That’s why we recommend that kids, and adults, as well, should just remain indoors and postpone activity during those hazardous levels.”

Faced with dirty air, schools innovate

One of the solutions schools have found is to use the Valley Air Pollution Control District’s Real Air Advisory Network. It’s a live reporting system that indicates the level of pollutants in the air and whether or not Valley residents should be engaged in outdoor activities, particularly if they have asthma.

There are five different levels. When air quality reaches level three, people with asthma should avoid vigorous outdoor activity. At level four, the air is unhealthy for all and much outdoor exercise isn’t recommended. Level five means that schools send everyone indoors and cancel outdoor sports and P.E.

Heather Heinks, the outreach and communications manager for the Air Pollution Control District, said the organization’s goal is for every school in the region to use the real-time alert system. There’s even an iPhone app and widget that schools can embed on their websites so parents can be up-to-date on the conditions.

“Raising awareness so schools can make the right decisions is exactly the service we’re trying to provide,” she said. “Our region is trending in the right direction, but we still want to drive up the numbers for getting schools involved in our program.”

Parents are encouraged to walk to and from school whenever possible and to avoid idling in the car while dropping off and picking up their kids. Just idling the engine for more than ten seconds uses more fuel than turning it off and restarting the car.

Taking sports indoors

When it comes to childhood health, concerns about obesity are right there with the worry over asthma. So for schools it’s not enough just to be aware of the air quality and cancel sports — they must still find a way to keep students active.

Erin Gage is principal of Boris Elementary School, which will open in August as the newest addition to the Clovis Unified School District. During her recent tenure as principal of nearby Freedom Elementary School, there were many days where the Valley’s 100-degree temperatures required rethinking the day’s plans for P.E. and competitive sports. Clovis Unified offers competitive sports programs for fourth through sixth grade students, who can compete against other schools in sports like baseball, volleyball, and basketball, all typically played outdoors.

Gage said coaches and teachers have had to get creative by designing P.E. activities that can be done indoors, pushing aside the desks in a classroom or using the cafeteria.

“We have one cafeteria and 800 kids, so our teachers have been creative about sharing the space or using online workout videos to keep the kids active,” she said.

At Boris, there will be a fitness circuit-training program, where teachers can use a jump rope, hula-hoops, cones and other equipment for doing P.E. either outdoors or indoors. The new school will have hallways, so kids won’t always have to rearrange furniture or share space in the cafeteria.

Schools must also analyze students’ individual needs. George Petersen, principal of Clovis Unified’s Liberty Elementary School in Fresno, said teachers must also be aware of those whose specific educational plan requires them to sit out at a lower level on the RAAN scale.

Parents should also be aware of the air quality on a given day so that they can plan for when their kids get out of school, he said.

“You’ve got to inform the parents, and sometimes the level doesn’t change until it’s late in the day,” Petersen said. “Things are serious now with what we know about air quality, and we have to have the procedures in place so the classroom teachers, kids and parents are informed.”

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