Campus raises concerns for wildfire season, COVID-19

photo of the Berkeley Fire Trails and hills
Josh Kahen/Senior Staff
As California’s wildfire season is under way, members of the UC Berkeley community address concerns regarding ventilation, air quality and COVID-19 exposure and safety protocols in campus buildings.

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California’s wildfire season has begun, and along with it come ventilation and air quality risks that might pose a problem in combination with COVID-19 safety protocols.

Limiting outdoor air inside campus structures might keep indoor air quality at healthy levels in the aftermath of wildfires, for example, but the loss of natural ventilation might increase the possibility of COVID-19 exposure.

“We know that we’re facing potentially multiple disasters coming at us at the same time, including COVID and also potential wildfire effects such as smoke and power outages,” said ASUC Academic Affairs Vice President James Weichert. “We’ve set up classrooms to push air out because we don’t want stagnant air, and that’s not great if we have poor air quality and that air is seeping in through windows.”

Campus contingency plans include designating better-ventilated structures for communal use as well as considering a transition to online courses if air quality worsens significantly, according to Patrick Goff, executive director of campus’s Office of Environment, Health and Safety.

According to Goff, campus will maximize natural ventilation when Air Quality Index, or AQI, levels are below 100.

In the event that AQI increases, campus has identified “Cleaner Air Shelter” buildings with better filtration systems, which may be used as communal areas, Goff said in an email. These buildings include Crossroads Dining, Moffitt Library, the Lawrence Hall of Science and the Valley Life Sciences Building, among others.

Campus spokesperson Adam Ratliff added that Crossroads Dining will still serve meals to students in the event of poor air quality, as it has done in the past during similar situations.

Weichert alleged that campus is leaving contingency planning “to the last minute,” which he said was “scary.” He added that he feels the administration is not adequately communicating its plans to the campus community. ASUC Senator Muz Ahmad echoed this concern, adding the ASUC is waiting for campus guidance.

“Students should ask and demand more answers because frankly, we’re not getting them,” Weichert said. “There’s a lack of planning and a lack of transparency. It’s been frustrating.”

According to Goff, campus currently plans to close windows and restructure building ventilation to limit outdoor air at AQI levels above 100, which are considered unhealthy. Goff added that lab buildings will remain on 100% outside air “under all conditions.”

At AQI levels approaching 200, campus will consider canceling, transferring indoors or transitioning online all outdoor classes, Goff said in the email. If AQI levels between 201-300 are projected to persist, campus may cancel or restructure classes, he added.

“In terms of advocating on our side, we’re going to be looking after the health of our students,” Ahmad.

Anishi Patel is the lead academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @anishipatel.