CASHMERE — Cashmere students are back in school this week after a smoke-caused six school day break.
Cashmere School District staff, employees and community volunteers worked with environmental engineers through the weekend to clean and install air scrubbers, filters and entry vestibules to reopen the three schools to Cashmere’s 1,400 students Monday.
“They all think they’re going into a spaceship, but that’s OK,” said Cashmere High School principal Tony Boyle about the school’s entryway arrangement that includes noisy air filtration systems, coils of fat, air-filled plastic tubing and a zippered plastic doorway that looks like a set from “E.T.” or “Star Trek.”
“This is much better than an instant headache,” said high school senior Brian Norwood. Sitting in class Thursday, Sept. 13, before the schools were shut down, was like sitting in front of a campfire, he said.
Conditions were still very smoky — with air quality levels well into the hazardous range — in Cashmere Monday, but the air inside Cashmere schools was squeaky clean.
Cashmere Superintendent Glenn Johnson said 35 air-cleansing machines with HEPA filters were strategically installed to recycle and clean air in the district’s elementary, middle and high schools. The machines, along with the air-blown double entryways, new carbon filters on all ventilation systems and a thorough cleanup of settled ash, have reduced harmful smoke particles in the schools by 90 percent from what they were last week, he said.
Students were sent home early Sept. 13 when air-quality conditions became unsafe. Students were coughing, complaining of headaches and becoming cranky, said Susan Gubsch, high school Spanish and drama teacher.
“The smell was really bad and there was lots of smoke. It’s hard to learn in that situation,” she said.
The district decided to close the schools and keep them closed until the air quality could be improved.
“Cashmere is a unique situation. We had visible smoke in all three buildings,” said Johnson. Cashmere’s deep canyons funneled smoke and ash from the Poison Fire in Mission Creek Canyon right at the schools sending air quality monitors to unprecedented hazard levels. Carbon monoxide levels taken when the schools were closed last week rose to dangerous levels, he said. When conditions were deemed hazardous in Wenatchee last week, state Department of Ecology monitors showed particulate levels in Cashmere to often be two to three times worse.
“Other places were doing things that may have been perfectly appropriate for them. But we had a particular case. We decided if we were going to make an error, it was going to be on the side of safety,” Johnson said.
The district contracted with a nationally known disaster recovery firm and environmental consultants to come up with the best ways to clear and keep the smoke and harmful air particles out of the schools. Local volunteers like Lyle Deskin, who was construction superintendent when Cashmere Middle School was built in 2005, pitched in to help.
Johnson said the district will make up the lost class time but no decision has yet been made about how or when. He said he doesn’t plan to simply tack on six more school days in June.
The district will continue monitoring air quality until conditions improve. Physical education classes will be held inside and changed to reduce exertion levels. Athletic teams are being bused to areas with better air to train. Some sports events have been canceled or moved. Masks are available to students and employees who need or want them.
Johnson said the district’s insurance should pay for the ventilation improvement work. The district will also apply for an emergency grant from the state.
“We’re going to be fairly cautious, but we want to get the kids back in school. We’re thankful we could do that without sacrificing their safety,” he said.
Rick Steigmeyer: 664-7151