Poor air quality prompts UC Berkeley to cancel classes after community backlash

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Karen Chow/Senior Staff

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After days of community backlash, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ announced Thursday evening that classes would be canceled because of poor air quality.

In her statement, Christ said classes would be canceled for Thursday evening and all of Friday in response to the worsening air quality caused by the Camp Fire in Butte County. After Christ’s statement was released, Berkeley Recreational Sports announced that all of its facilities — including the Recreational Sports Facility, the fitness center at California Memorial Stadium and all lap swim pools — would be closed through Friday.

The UC Rally Committee also released a statement Thursday to the campus community, announcing that it had canceled the annual Big Game Rally. The committee had previously switched its program from the traditional bonfire event to a pyrotechnics show. But because of poor air quality, the committee said any outdoor event could “jeopardize the health and safety” of staff, performers and the general audience, and therefore, the rally could not proceed.

Schools across the Bay Area, including San Francisco State University, California State University at San Jose and Berkeley City College, canceled classes in response to worsening air quality. On Wednesday, before Christ’s announcement, campus freshman Peter Zhang created a petition calling for UC Berkeley administrators to close the campus until the air quality recovers — as of press time, the petition had collected more than 16,000 signatures.

When I saw so many of my fellow students have to either wear masks or bare with the poor environment situation without protection, I decided to ask the administration about what can be done to address it,” Zhang said in an email before Christ’s announcement. “By doing a petition, we can show the strength and unity in face of this challenge.”

Before Christ’s statement Thursday evening, she sent a campuswide message affirming that classes would remain in session Wednesday. At the time, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District indicated that the air quality index, or AQI, in Berkeley remained below 200 — the level at which the campus would cancel classes.

In her Wednesday statement, Christ said the campus decided that canceling classes was deemed not “warranted or necessary” after consulting campus medical staff and personnel from the campus Office of Environment, Health and Safety.

“Our decisions are based on guidance we receive from trained physicians” said campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof. “We understand (people’s) concerns, but because this is a complicated, dynamic problem, it is important that our decisions are based on science, data and expert guidance as opposed to emotion.”

Wednesday’s statement also advised members of the campus community to limit their time outside and refrain from “heavy exertion” when outdoors. After Christ released her statement, members of the ASUC released a statement Thursday morning condemning Christ’s response to the poor air quality.

The ASUC statement — signed by 18 out of 20 ASUC senators and four executives — said the Tang Center is “ill-equipped and ill-prepared” to protect students amid the current air conditions. According to the letter, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Stephen Sutton indicated to members of the ASUC that the Tang Center currently has no plan to restock its mask supply.

The Loop golf cart service, which offers campus transportation to UC Berkeley community members with disabilities or injuries, was temporarily opened to the entire campus community Thursday, according to a campuswide message from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Administration. ASUC Senator William Wang said this was not an effective solution, as most community members live off campus.

Wang, who helped organize an event to hand out free masks to students on Sproul Plaza on Thursday afternoon, said the campus has not responded to the “best of its ability.” He added that the AQI in the Berkeley area is expected to exceed 200.

“I understand that the university has never experienced this type of scenario before, and I understand the chancellor’s concern when it comes to this being the end of the semester,” Wang said. “To cancel classes … is a hefty solution and should not be taken lightly, but neither should this new (AQI) data.”

Contact Shelby Mayes and Anjali Shrivastava at [email protected].