The South Salem High School office in Sept. 1, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
When Alex Goldberg showed up at South Salem High School Monday to get a new Chromebook for her daughter, she found a line of students waiting outside in smoky air.
It was around 3 p.m., and Goldberg and her two teenage children had hoped to grab needed items for the start of school on Wednesday and return textbooks to avoid late fees.
But her daughter, Gabriela Evans, who has childhood asthma, had already been struggling with breathing indoors as Salem approached one week of hazardous air quality from nearby wildfires.
Goldberg didn’t want her waiting outside, so the family waited in the car, hoping the line would die down.
“People kept getting in line, dropping off their kids,” she said.
As families and schools prepare for the start of an already unusual school year, hazardous levels of wildfire smoke are adding an additional complication to the process.
Salem-Keizer already delayed the start of school by two days last week and rescheduled planned outdoor events like the one Goldberg attended because of heavy smoke in the air. With little improvement in air quality this week, district leaders told schools they must hold similar events indoors, but Goldberg said they didn't account for lines forming as students waited to go inside and collect belongings.
Now, Principal Tara Tiffin said South will make changes Tuesday afternoon to ensure students aren't waiting in line in hazardous air.
Goldberg said the student who was last in line when they arrived Monday took about a half hour to reach the front.
“That’s a complete lack of foresight for what this is doing to these kids,” she said about the air quality. “I’ve never seen a school event where people weren’t waiting in line. They had to know lines would form. They just had no plan.”
She called the school office and was told to try coming back later, a suggestion she said wasn’t feasible for parents like her who work.
About 20 Salem-Keizer schools held similar events Monday for students to pick up items left behind in lockers when schools closed in March, return textbooks and get district-issued Chromebooks for a remote start of school Wednesday.
Those events were rescheduled from last week after Superintendent Christy Perry asked all schools to cancel events due to wildfire smoke.
The events went ahead as planned even with Monday’s air quality index above 400, well into the “hazardous” range. Tuesday’s air quality showed some improvement, with an index just below 300, “very unhealthy,” in the morning. It increased to hazardous by 10 a.m., according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s sensors.
That air quality has prompted other event cancelations across Salem, including Salem Public Library’s curbside pickup program this week and a planned city street closure for outdoor dining over the weekend.
District spokeswoman Sylvia McDaniel said local schools were told they could not hold events outside because of the smoke. She said they hadn’t received complaints or reports of long lines at other schools.
The district “has worked really hard to provide options for families and students, as we prepare for the start of school in the comprehensive distance learning model. Our goal was to keep focused this week on doing what we could to start school on Wednesday by ensuring that every student was ready to begin their educational experience,” McDaniel said in an email.
South is holding its event over multiple days, with set times for students to come in based on their grade level and last name. This afternoon, sophomores and seniors will be getting needed items.
Principal Lara Tiffin said they staggered the schedule to minimize congestion, but some students weren’t able to make it at the assigned time, which led to lines forming.
“I am truly sorry she had such a negative experience,” she said of Goldberg’s account.
Goldberg was able to schedule a time Tuesday to come pick up needed items without her daughter waiting in line, but said she was concerned for other teenagers left outdoors in air health authorities consider dangerous for any period of time.
Tiffin said South is making other changes to Tuesday afternoon’s event. If a line forms outside the school, students will be directed to wait inside with appropriate social distancing. She said school staff will also be available just before the 1 p.m. start time so they can help students who show up early, reducing the likelihood of a wait.
Based on yesterday’s turnout, she said the event would likely be less crowded at the end of the day, between 5 and 6 p.m.
Salem-Keizer students will begin the year Wednesday with a short day to get to know teachers and the online learning system. Thursday is the first full day of classes.
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Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.