Stuyvesant Closes Its Doors Following Unprecedented Wildfire Season

Starting on June 6, thick smoke from the wildfires burning in Canada began to envelop New York City and the North East, resulting in the closing of New York City schools on June 9.

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By Theodore Eicher

Thick smoke from the wildfires burning in Canada began to envelop the Northeast starting on June 6 and continuing through June 9. After these clouds of smog hit the Northeast, they caused New York City and other nearby places to have the worst air quality of any city in the entire world. This led to unprecedented action taken by the Department of Education (DoE), which consisted of the cancellation of all sports activities on June 7, Camp Stuy on June 8, and in-person school on June 9.

According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC), Canada currently has more than 400 active fires, with more than 200 out of control. In the past several weeks, Canada has had significantly more fires than its usual 10-week average. When these fires burn, they release pollutants into the air, such as particulate matter. “Wednesday evening, I think the AQI EQI (air quality index/environmental quality index) was 300-400, like, twice the minimum level to be considered toxic. At that level you definitely want to at least give it a couple of days to simmer down,” sophomore and incoming Environmental Club President Mark Ionis said.

Many people who were in the building on June 8 were exposed to the high levels of particulates from the wildfire smoke covering New York, resulting in extensive health problems for some. “I was coughing and I did have a headache,” junior Arshia Mazumder said. “My friend was having a lot of trouble breathing, [and] it was tougher for people with actual [respiratory] issues.”

Due to these health concerns, many students, parents, and families became worried, taking several precautions to stay healthy. “I remember getting a message from my mom telling me to stay inside for as long as possible, so I know they were definitely concerned,” Mazumder said.

The Stuyvesant administration followed DoE instructions on June 7 and 8 regarding the reduction of contamination and keeping students healthy. “We follow[ed] the advisement from the City and the New York City Public Schools with the intent to keep both students and staff healthy,” Principal Seung Yu said in an e-mail interview. “The advisement from the City and the New York City Public Schools was to be aware of the poor air quality and to take precautionary measures including reduced time outside and wearing a mask if possible. Our custodial and maintenence staff worked to ensure minimal outside air was entering the building and ensuring there was adequate air circulation.”

As a result of the air conditions, the DoE ultimately canceled school on June 6. This decision was likely taken in part because that day was already a holiday for many schools. “Stuyvesant is a public high school of the New York City Public School system[,] so we follow the guidance and decisions provided by the Chancellor and Mayor,” Principal Yu said. “It is important to note that Friday was a clerical day for ‘elementary schools, middle schools, K-12 schools, and standalone D75 programs’ so many students [already] did not have a school day on Friday.”

Even for faculty members, who were forced to abruptly adjust their classes to remote learning, many approved of the decision to cancel school on Friday. “[It was a] prudent and expected [decision] given the health concerns,” environmental science teacher Jerry Citron said in an e-mail interview. “[My reaction] was horrible during our extremely bad [smog] when the AQI for PM2.5 went above 250.”

Likewise, many students also not only supported the decision to make school remote on Friday but also believe that school should have been canceled on Wednesday as well. “There was no reason to have us there, especially since those were the worst conditions [that there] could have been at that time,” Mazumder said.

However, some students found the remote learning unhelpful, as many teachers didn’t have enough unaddressed material that would warrant synchronous remote learning. “It’s close to the end of the year [and] most of the teachers didn’t exactly have that much content anyway, so I feel like doing a Zoom was a little unnecessary,” sophomore Aeneas Merchant said. “It ended up being everyone sitting on the Zoom doing nothing, which for most of my classes isn’t the best use of time.”

In contrast, others preferred synchronous remote learning to asynchronous at all points throughout the school year. “Having some interaction with the teacher is probably better than having none, and some teachers did still assign work that you had to do independently on top of showing up to the Zoom, so that’s sort of a model where it’s partly both asynchronous and over Zoom, which seems to work fine for what it is,” Ionis said.

For the future, the Stuyvesant administration is currently waiting for more instructions regarding preventative measures. “The school provided the stock of N95 and KN95 masks available. The City and the New York City Public School system provided the personal protection equipment (PPE) during COVID so I am sure they are considering what may be needed in the future in response to possible issues,” Principal Yu said.

Ultimately, the current air quality issues only highlight a larger climate-related trend. With temperatures in Canada only increasing to record-breaking levels and droughts being exacerbated because of climate change, air pollution from wildfires may become more prevalent not only throughout our lives but also in American society as a whole. “We are seeing more and more wildfires throughout the world,” Citron said. “[I am] talking over 10 million acres and [this] fire season is not even halfway done.”