Photo Credits: ALLYSON KO / AGGIE
UC Davis loses seven days of instruction due to poor air quality
UC Davis’ decision to cancel classes during seven days of previously scheduled instruction, from Nov. 13 to 26, was an unprecedented event resulting from unhealthy air quality from the now fully contained Camp Fire. School officials were marshalled into emergency responses that required close collaboration between campus administration, faculty and students as they came together and created a campus closure plan that was based on day-to-day information.
Emily Galindo, the interim vice chancellor of student affairs, spoke about the extreme difficulty of closing down the largest campus in the UC system.
“We’re dealing with a campus population [including students and staff] of over 60,000 people in a region that was impacted by a major event,” Galindo said. “Within that context, no decisions are made in isolation. The chancellor is great about consulting, and from the very beginning, there was consultation ongoing throughout.”
Chancellor Gary May had determined that if the air quality index was under 150, the campus would be opened, but if the AQI was at 200 or above, the campus needed to be closed.
“Most folks were in agreement: if above 200, then that was a definite close,” Galindo said. “But if the area was under 150, it was fine. If it got between 151 and 200, [it] was really a judgment call. As we looked from one day to the next, the reading showed that it was going to remain in that area when in fact it didn’t […] In many instances, we were just doing our best [and] listening to the feedback.”
Galindo discussed the tenuous nature of the crisis that required an hands-on strategy to manage the problem.
“We were taking a day-by-day approach,” Galindo said, referring to a number of people, including the chairperson of the Academic Senate, the student assistants to the chancellor, ASUCD leadership, the Graduate Student Association (GSA), college deans and staff who were present at the “many, many” meetings that were held.
Carolyn Thomas, the vice provost and dean of undergraduate education and a professor of American Studies, became involved on the third day of the closure. Thomas discussed her role in the decision-making process.
“My sense was the chancellor’s team was waiting to look at all of the information everyday,” Thomas said. “But […] by the third day, the leadership reached out to me and asked my opinion about what should happen and how we might make decisions for the [upcoming] days.”
Thomas went to work on setting up guidance and FAQs for the faculty.
“What we were trying to do was to help faculty be focused on making sure that the learning objectives for the course were what they were focused on,” Thomas said. “We had to lose class days, but we wanted faculty to know that they didn’t need to think about […making] up all of that material, but instead what they need to do was to try to stay focused on being empathetic to the students and really focusing on the bigger picture in the remaining days.”
On the student side of things, Galindo said she was concerned about the 6,000 students living in on-campus housing because they needed special care.
“We had to ensure that meals were prepared and can happen,” she said. “They are also living in facilities where we had to be sure that trash was removed on a regular basis. We needed custodians to come in and make sure that happened, because you could end up with a serious health issue.”
Galindo explained that the Unitrans bus drivers were outfitted with N95 masks early on, but bus service had to be halted if the AQI reached 200 or more. She also mentioned that Aggie Compass, which is located in the Memorial Union and provides food and housing information, stayed open throughout the campus closure.
The CoHo was closed on the second day of campus closure, Galindo said, and some 300 ASUCD student workers who receive paper paychecks were not able to pick them up at the ASUCD office.
“The decisions cannot be made lightly, and we need to be thoughtful,” Galindo said. “If you make an announcement that we’re closed and those students need those funds, that creates a hardship — that is an example of why everything needed to be thought through.”
ASUCD President Michael Gofman worked alongside the GSA president and other association leaders as well as the Academic Senate to develop FAQs and guidance as to the university’s response if such an event were to occur again.
“In hindsight, […] it would have been obvious that we would have never have had school over that two week stretch, but as things were happening, we were unsure as to what was going to happen with the fire, we were unsure as to what was going to happen with the smoke and the air quality, and we were unsure if we were going to be put on probation with our accrediting agency because of the amount of days that we have missed,” Gofman said.
UC Davis needs approval from the UC Office of President if the number of instructional days in Fall Quarter falls below 48 days.
“We just got that approval,” Galindo said. “By policy, you have to have 48 of the 50 instructional days each quarter in order to get credit. That is required. If you drop below that 48 days, then you have to request an exception.”
On the health side of operations, Charles Casey, the senior public information officer at UC Davis Health, spoke via email about the work the hospital did during the crisis.
“Despite the extraordinary air quality issues in our region, there was never any question about remaining open for patient care,” Casey said. “We are a 24/7/365 hospital, with all the related clinical care activities that we must be able to provide at all times, regardless of conditions.”
And, Casey added, UC Davis Health’s regional burn unit was caring for victims of the fire. Casey also said that throughout the crisis, the emergency department did not report any cases of people affected by the smoke.
“We presume people made common sense decisions to avoid outdoor exercise and avoided spending extended time outside while the air quality was hazardous,” Casey said.
Casey spoke about UC Davis Health’s preparedness for providing medical services in the event of emergencies such as the Camp Fire.
“UC Davis Medical Center has an Emergency Preparedness Program that is designed for all types of emergencies and disasters (natural and man-made),” he said. “We have full-time staff members who oversee and coordinate the health system’s disaster preparedness, which includes regular trainings for staff and an entire manual devoted to the roles, responsibilities and logistics for keeping health services available during a crisis.”
Deborah Agee, the director of financial aid and scholarships, discussed how her office managed the closure and worked to continue service for students.
“We learned [about the closure] at about 7:20 a.m. on Tuesday, the 13th,” Agee said. “My senior staff and I quickly conferred via phone and email, and we determined […] that we should move forward with the implementation of our business continuity protocol.”
She said the protocol involved supervisors notifying all staff by text message of the closure, and that because the closure notice came out at 7:20 a.m., some workers were already in the office but later had to be sent home. Agee also said workers who could work from home on their laptops were encouraged to do so.
On the pending financial aid applications and cases, Agee worked with her staff to come up with a plan. She also stated that there were hard deadlines that the financial aid office had to meet.
“In financial aid, we have a number of deadlines that we have to meet with the United States Department of Education — you have x amount of days to return for Title IV aid, and you have x amount of days to complete certain activities,” she said. “And we realized that we were going to be in danger of missing some of those deadlines. Those compliance requirements were prioritized and we brought in a team of 10 processing folks.”
For all financial aid concerns that have resulted from the campus closure, Agee suggested sending an email to her office or using the Contact an Expert portal on my.ucdavis.edu. Students also have the option to call the financial aid office at (530) 752-1011.
Mccall Fellows, a third-year economics major, was asked about her thoughts on the campus closure.
“I think that really the school was doing what they had to do,” Fellows said. “There was no other options. Once they cancelled the first day and all the other days after that were worse — they had no options but to cancel class.”
Fellows expressed concern for the people of Paradise at the center of the wildfire.
“My aunt and uncle live in Paradise — they are all safe, but their house has burned down,” she said “I know there is lots of students who have family up there. The university also had to be mindful of those families.”
Galindo offered her thoughts on the lessons that were learned from the crisis.
“We do plan to debrief as a leadership team to talk about lessons learned, talk about if these circumstances presented again what kind of processes would we put in place,” Galindo said. “We will work on ensuring that we do that.”
In looking at the bigger picture, Galindo said, “This was a tragedy. A whole community gone. Lives have been lost, and within that context, it is pretty sobering, and we need to think about that as well.”
Galindo asked the UC Davis community to refer to her open letter to the campus on the closure for any additional information.
Written by: George Liao — firstname.lastname@example.org