By Alex Tsai
Stanford cancelled Friday classes in an Emergency Information announcement made at 9:46 p.m. Thursday night. The decision followed a seven-hour span in which both the smoke and student outcry — including an open letter and petition to the University — grew increasingly prominent on campus.
“Throughout this week, the University has been monitoring the air quality effects from the devastating fires that have occurred in California,” wrote Provost Persis Drell in the announcement, which was also circulated via email around 10:02 p.m. “While there has been a great deal of variability, there has been a significant increase in smoke in the area around Stanford over the last 24 hours, with official readings beginning to creep into the ‘very unhealthy’ category.”
Stanford’s air quality index (AQI) surged to “unhealthy” levels on Thursday, as smoke from California’s devastating Camp Fire continued to envelop the Stanford campus and the surrounding Bay Area. As of Thursday night, the Stanford area AQI surpassed 260, which is considered “very unhealthy” for even healthy persons, according to the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management.
The worsening air quality prompted more than 500 members of the Stanford community to sign a petition calling for Stanford to protect student health by either canceling classes or increasing accessibility to N95 particulate filtering masks. The petition, titled “Ask Stanford to Protect Students from Air Pollution,” was circulated from 2:42 p.m. on Thursday and claimed that Stanford had failed to adequately protect the community from the smoke.
As of the morning of Nov. 17, the University has increased efforts to provide students with N95 masks.
“We are doing our very best to distribute our limited supply of N95 masks to those who want one,” wrote communications director for the Vice Provost’s Office Pat Lopes Harris in an email to The Daily. “Additional masks will be available from noon to 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17, and noon to 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 18, outside Vaden Health Center, while supplies last.”
Madeleine Rowell ’19 wrote the petition and addressed it to President Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Drell. The letter garnered over 500 student signatures within eight hours of publication. Signees include ASSU executive president Shanta Katipamula ’19 and ASSU Mental Health and Wellness co-director Trenton Chang ’20.
Rowell said she was uncertain about the role her petition played in the University’s decision to cancel Friday classes.
“In terms of what the petition did or didn’t do, I honestly don’t know, especially because [the University] was fairly unresponsive to me,” Rowell said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that they cancelled classes, and I think that was definitely necessary. But I’m not happy that [the University] didn’t respond to me in a prompt manner; they didn’t seem to take my claims seriously. I was calling for more action to be done earlier today because the air quality has been poor for a week. I shouldn’t have had to even email and create a petition to begin with.”
Rowell said that students’ overwhelming support of the petition indicated that the necessity of additional precautionary measures was obvious to all except the Stanford administration.
On Thursday, noticing that many members of the Stanford community continued to bike on campus without a mask despite substandard air quality, Rowell said she felt concerned for the community’s respiratory health.
Before canceling Friday classes, the University released other updates regarding the smoke, alerting students of the deteriorating air quality and sharing recommendations to prevent smoke-related health issues.
“I called Vaden to see if they were distributing masks, and they told me that … Vaden has a supply available for students with respiratory issues, but they only give out masks — one per student — if they come in,” Rowell said.
She also spoke with representatives from EH&S, who she characterized as “dismissive” of her concerns regarding student health. When Rowell inquired about distribution of N95 masks on campus, the department official suggested that she buy a mask at a hardware store or limit outdoor exposure.
A community alert issued today at 3:48 p.m. confirmed this recommendation.
“Masks have limited effectiveness and are not recommended for healthy individuals,” the email read.
Vexed by what she believed to be an inadequate response from the University, Rowell created the petition as “an outlet for students to express their concerns and hold the University accountable.”
“If they hadn’t cancelled classes, even without the petition, I’d be very surprised,” Rowell said, citing increasing health warnings issued to the San Francisco population. “But that being said, I hope [the University] still takes our request to be more transparent about how they’re going to prepare for events like this in the future.”
The deteriorating air quality forced several colleges and schools throughout the Bay Area to cancel classes due to ongoing health concerns before Stanford made its own announcement. San Jose State University, San Francisco State University, Santa Clara University and UC Berkeley all announced on Thursday afternoon that their campuses would close on Friday. Similarly, San Francisco Unified School District announced the closure of all San Francisco Public Schools on Friday.
Students with pre-existing respiratory illnesses face particularly high risk of harm from the poor air quality. Bec Smith ’19, who was diagnosed with asthma as a child, said he woke up with a sore throat as soon as smoke began to enclose campus on Friday. Over the following days, the poor air quality aggravated Smith’s symptoms.
“I have an upper respiratory infection now,” Smith said. “I started coughing up stuff, and I had a really bad headache — I still have a headache now, actually — and I’ve been wheezing. It’s been gross, truly.”
Smith said his declining health caused him to miss class. He added that when he visited Vaden Health Center on Tuesday, he was prescribed oral steroids but did not receive an N95 mask. Smith said he believes Vaden did not receive a shipment of N95 masks until Thursday.
As of Thursday night, Vaden Health Center began distributing N95 masks for free to all Stanford students who visited in person and presented a valid SUID.
Lucas Haarmann ’22 said he stopped by Vaden to pick up a mask because he was concerned about inhaling harmful particles while biking back and forth between classes.
“I’ve heard these aren’t particularly effective; there’s a lot of leakage especially if they’re not properly fitted,” he said.
Haarmann paused the interview to help another student properly fit the mask to his face.
Although the N95 masks are offered by Vaden only to current Stanford students, an anonymous third-year Ph.D. student said that to obtain one mask for himself and one for his girlfriend — who no longer attends Stanford — he waited in line and presented his SUID twice.
The anonymous student added that he witnessed the Vaden front desk turn away a Stanford affiliate, who was instead instructed to contact his employer for access to a mask.
Rowell said she believes canceling classes on Friday was a step in the right direction, though prior to Vaden’s expanded efforts to provide masks to students, she remains disappointed that the University is not taking action to distribute N95 masks more widely.
Harris added that Vaden would otherwise be closed this weekend due to previously scheduled construction. She urged students to consider Vaden’s after hours services for those seeking attention outside of Vaden’s hours of operation.
Ultimately, Rowell hopes the petition will encourage Stanford to take greater accountability for the wellbeing of students. “I urge Stanford to be more transparent in the future with their plans to prioritize student health,” she said.
This article has been updated with a response from Vaden Health Center.
Contact Alex Tsai at aotsai ‘at’ stanford.edu.