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The Myth of “Normalcy” and Returning to School During an Active Disaster

Update:: After listening to the concern expressed by educators and administrators at school campuses, the district mentioned herein extended their open date to ensure all schools were properly and thoroughly cleaned.

I’m sitting here in a long t-shirt at our old desk top, typing out this post, consuming the last slice of two (or eek possibly three) day-old apple pie and black coffee. Sharing my desk surface among my files: a giant box of Kirkland Popcorn, Kinder’s Teriyaki Marinade, a giant bottle of ranch, a handle of Smirnoff, Tapatio, and some brut champagne.

None of that is normal.

My kids are missing seven days of school at this point. My oldest is supposed to be hiking in Yosemite today, but that trip has been cancelled. My youngest is missing all of her routines: twice weekly preschool and swim lessons (indoors but cancelled anyway due to air quality).

None of that is normal.

I check the air-quality index every day and cringe. Even when we spot hints of blue above, we know that in a few hours, the sky will be marred with yellow smoke. Although I spent most of my time indoors and used a mask when outside for any prolonged time, my throat still burns, and I have a hacking cough.

None of that is normal.

And yet, many schools are opting to open this week, under the guise of “returning to normalcy.” For people who are lucky like us, who were able to open our home up to evacuated families this week, who’s only “displacement” means an overflowing pantry because multiple families have stored their food with us, there is no normal. I cannot imagine how displaced and still evacuated families are feeling, but I can promise this isn’t normal for them either. So why we are pushing so hard for something that doesn’t yet exist?

People are saying that it’s psychologically beneficial for children to return to routine, and I agree. But there is no routine in wearing masks to school or seeing half of your hometown crushed by fire. This demand to push our children to normalize a disaster, feels more like gaslighting.

The EPA realized after 9/11 that they were wrong on the myth of returning to normalcy before the air and the chemical filled ash was clear. 

“I’m very sorry that people are sick,” she said. “I’m very sorry that people are dying and if the EPA and I in any way contributed to that, I’m sorry. We did the very best we could at the time with the knowledge we had.”- The Guardian (linked above)

Air Quality Map BreezoMeter Tuesday 12:04 pm

PM10 is dominant right now. PM10 is defined as: 

Particles less than or equal to 10 micrometers in diameter are so small that they can get into the lungs, potentially causing serious health problems. Ten micrometers is less than the width of a single human hair. Coarse dust particles (PM10) are 2.5 to 10 micrometers in diameter.-Source

The Santa Rosa Fire shares some similarities with 9/11. Thousands of structures burned: asbestos, plastics, and more, litter our air. Sonoma County Office of Education rightly asked all schools to clean their campuses. However, no one is there to enforce this request. 


Oak Grove School District is one of the few districts with a Santa Rosa school required to return before next Monday. The air quality is poor, and many teachers and staff reported that the campus was not clean at their back to school meeting on Monday. Filters have not been replaced, ash liters the ground. One could imagine at a middle school with multiple periods, students would be trekking this ash into classrooms, igniting allergies as they grind it into the carpet. It’s not just that the outdoor air remains a danger, but that the classrooms themselves, where our children would be mask-free, are not safe either.

It alarms me that no one from the county is there to confirm that the schools are cleaned, safe, and ready. Should I be sending my children where the schools are littered with toxic ash, to classrooms with no purification systems, and no replaced air-conditioner filters? 

The answer is simple for me, less so for others. I work from home and have the privilege of moving our just purchased air purifiers room-to-room while my children try to entertain themselves. But for the working families, the pressure to return to school is great. I have no perfect solution for that. I wish we could slow down as a community and stop trying to “normalize” during the active phase of a disaster. We all need time, and grace.

But, for now, I can offer you some things I learned during this process that will help you make sure your children are at least safe while at school.

Important Steps to Ensure Safe Return to School:

  1. According to SCOE, there is no one enforcing the above cleaning requirements for schools. This hard work of cleaning gigantic campuses is monitored by the honor system. Check with your school teachers that their classrooms are cleaned or walk the school grounds yourself.
  2. If it is not clean, you need to report your findings to either your school’s board of trustees, or the State of California (this is what SCOE told me to do when I reported that our campuses were not clean). 
  3. If you must send your your child to school, send them with an N98 mask, and replace it EVERY day. Implore them to wear them.
  4. Work with your PTA or PTO to provide air purifiers to clean the air in the classrooms that don’t have Air-Conditioning, and for those that do, confirm that the filter is replaced. 
  5. Confirm that the carpets are vacuumed and all windows and surfaces are wiped down. Offer to help if you have the time and are healthy enough to do so. Our janitors are not equipped for this toxic level of cleaning, and their health matters too.

How to Talk to Your Children about the Trauma of Disaster (without Rugsweeping)

  1. Let them know it’s okay to be scared and frustrated (because this IS scary and frustrating)
  2. Limit media coverage
  3. Show them the “helpers” doing good acts
  4. Ask older children if they have any ideas to help.

More Ideas for helping children during a disaster HERE

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One Response to The Myth of “Normalcy” and Returning to School During an Active Disaster

  1. Julie October 17, 2017 at 2:15 pm #

    Thank you! I have four grandchildren in four different schools. I am very worried for their health and especially as it relates to returning to school. Thank you for confirming my concerns and for your suggestions of ways we can help.