This summer’s scorching wildfires and the smothering air they created across Oregon have already prompted stricter health guidelines for high school athletic teams — but the group that issued the changes, the Oregon School Activities Association, says more changes may be coming.
The new air-quality health guidelines were so strict that on the day they were issued last month, they prompted officials to end a boys soccer game at halftime.
Central Oregon educators and the school activities association are looking back at 2017’s fire season to discuss potential further changes when it comes to keeping students safe from poor air quality.
The activities association, which oversees high school sports, offers air-quality recommendations on when students are safe to practice or play sports outside, based on the Oregon Healthy Authority’s guidelines. But the association doesn’t give mandates related to air quality.
The decision of whether student athletes will practice or compete outside is left up to school athletic directors and coaches.
During the height of fire season, athletic directors and coaches watched air-quality reports to see if they should alter practices or competitions.
But on Sept. 5, the Oregon School Activities Association told its member schools and local associations that it recommends outdoor activities be curtailed sooner than they had been previously.
“We ratcheted back down the recommendation and guidelines after talking with Oregon Healthy Authority and the Department of Environmental Quality,” said Peter Weber, the association’s executive director.
The association previously directed schools to take student athletes inside or cancel practice if air quality is at the red level, considered “unhealthy.” The Sept. 5 notice informed member schools it now recommends canceling practice or moving it indoors if the air quality is at the orange level, considered “unhealthy for sensitive groups.”
The notice also informed schools that practices or contests in cross country, soccer or football, the association sports played outdoors in the fall, aren’t considered “light activity” by the association, something previously left less defined by the organization.
Air at the orange level means the air-quality index is rated between 100 and 150 and visibility is between three and five miles. The 5-3-1 Visibility Index is an important tool for schools who don’t have an air monitor located nearby, Weber said. The 5-3-1 stands for the miles a person can see: The shorter the distance a person can see, the less healthy it is to be active outdoors.
The purple level, considered “very unhealthy” or “hazardous” by the Oregon Healthy Authority, is when a person can see one mile or less. But after this year’s severe fire season and air effects, Weber said the association is looking at whether it should provide more stringent guidelines in the future.
“Do we need to have a specific policy, clearly delineated that this is what schools will follow?” Weber said.
The association is considering tighter guidelines similar to its heat index, where it has a policy including the maximum hours students can practice in specific temperature ranges and advises increased water breaks, rest breaks and at what level practice should be canceled. The difficulty with using an air-quality index is the difference in availability between temperature and humidity gauges and air monitors, Weber said.
“One of the issues is not everyone has air monitors,” Weber said.
Redmond, for example, doesn’t have a permanent air monitor, although it did have a temporary one set up this fire season. Rural communities often don’t have air monitors.
Weber said the association will continue to work with the Oregon Health Authority and Department of Environmental Quality on how it may change its air-quality guidelines.
“My guess is we’ll end up with something in advance of next year,” Weber said, later adding, “in the past, our guidelines have been pretty generic.”
The new guidelines had an immediate impact. The same day the association sent out its updated recommendation, there were soccer games scheduled at Madras High School against Sisters High School.
The varsity boys team started playing a preseason game when the air quality was in the yellow, or moderate, range. But as the air became noticeably smokier, Madras High Athletic Director Evan Brown kept a close eye on air-quality levels reported online. The air-quality monitor in Madras is located just a few blocks from the high school, he said.
By halftime, the air quality had worsened to the orange range.
“It was really obvious the air quality had changed dramatically,” Brown said. “Obviously our goal is to keep kids safe. We don’t want our kids out there, especially when they’re working hard and have those high oxygen needs.”
Once a contest starts, the only person who can alter it is the official, Brown said. He showed the air-quality information to the referee, who then canceled the game and the two games to follow: varsity girls and junior varsity boys soccer.
Weber said the association fielded many calls about air quality this fire season, usually from athletic directors, but sometimes from coaches, principals and parents too.
Bend-La Pine Schools, too, got several calls from parents concerned with air quality, according to Julianne Repman, the district’s communications director.
“The plan is always follow the lead of our partners that are our experts: OHA, DEQ,” Repman said. “This year we saw the fine-tuning of it.”
The decision whether to allow students outside for recess is left up to principals, Repman said. She sent out reports each day to school staff about air quality, but those could obviously change through the course of the day, Repman said.
Letting principals decide whether the air quality is safe for kids to be outside allows them to use discretion based on their location. Air quality in Sunriver may be different than it is at La Pine or Bend, and air quality in Bend may even be different in one part of town than it is in another. Repman said the district had to remind staff that there’s one air-quality reader in Bend.
“One of the things that does come out of a longer term incident like this is you have more time to perfect your practice,” Repman said. “I think we got better at it but at the same time I think there was definitely some confusion.”
Repman said there instances where parents were upset students could play outside at recess when it appeared smoky out, but based on the Oregon Health Authority’s recommendations, it’s OK for students to active outside at recess at the orange level, considered “unhealthy for sensitive groups” when visibility is three to five miles.
Repman said during the smoky days, schools would allow students to stay inside for recess like they might in especially cold weather.
Some parents weren’t pleased with the school district’s approach to smoky days: Nichole van Eikeren, who herself has a preschool-age daughter but who was in on talks with Bend-La Pine parents, said some families wanted more communication about how the school district was making the air-quality calls.
“I’m not saying that they did the wrong thing but I don’t think they clearly and timely communicated with parents,” van Eikeren said.
She felt there were many times when parents would have expected kids to stay inside that they went out for recess.
According to Repman, some teachers of the district’s younger students keep a closer eye on who they think would be better off staying inside when there’s smoke in the air, but kids can also decide for themselves and ask to stay in. Repman said it’s much more common for kids to “self-select” like that in cold weather than it is in smoky conditions.
Lindsay Hagler, Mountain View High School’s athletic trainer, said she’d be interested in seeing the Oregon School Activities Association set stricter guidelines since initially this fire season they were pretty vague. Before the association updated its recommendations on Sept. 5, Mountain View had modified some practices, but hadn’t canceled or moved them inside.
But after the notice was sent out, the high school did move several practices inside, including for football.
Most years, there are only a couple of practices where they have to consider the air quality. But this year was different.
“This fire season was the longest and worst I’ve seen,” Hagler said.
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