Falling ash, concern over air quality pulls some student athletes indoors

FEDERAL WAY, Wash. -- Ash falling from the sky has a lot of parents talking as kids in many districts head back to school this week.

In fact, so many people were checking the air quality Tuesday because of the ash that the Washington Department of Ecology server crashed.

Skies over Seattle looked more like dirty dishwater.

“We had the windows open and ash was blowing in and coating the counter," said Dan Voelpel, spokesperson for Tacoma Public Schools.

A day before their students returned to class on Wednesday, the Tacoma School District pulled sports practices and games indoors.

“We felt it was a good precautionary measure in this rare occurrence of smoke in the air in western Washington, to err on the side of safety for the kids,” said Voelpe, who added that his district communicates regularly with other districts taking similar measures.

That's the right call, according to doctors.

“I’m a Seattle native and I’ve not seen this in many, many years -- if ever,” said Dr. Joshua Benditt, a pulmonologist for the UW Medical Center.

Benditt has been getting a lot of calls from concerned parents.

“I’m telling all my friends that they should not exercise the next day or two unless they really have to. You exercise, you increase your ventilation--the amount of breath you’re taking in,” said Benditt. “Every time there will be particulates coming in with that.”

Many school districts in western Washington were heeding that warning.

On Tuesday King and Snohomish counties were in  “moderate” and "unhealthy for sensitive groups" air categories. In those conditions, the Washington State Department of Heath recommends schools “allow students with asthma, respiratory infection, lung or heart disease to stay indoors”—during every 15 minutes of recess time.

For every one hour of P.E. or 2-3 hours of vigorous activity like athletic events and practices, the health department recommends teachers and coaches “monitor students with asthma, respiratory infection, lung or heart disease. Increase rest periods and substitutions for those students as needed.”

The new football field at Todd Beamer High School in Federal Way was unusually empty Tuesday. Typically the team would be out practicing the afternoon before school starts.  But on Tuesday, coaches told players practice would be inside.

“Today was more mental instead of physical, like we usually do on the field," explained Amone Bledsoe a junior and Titans corner/linebacker. “It was more like getting mental reps in.”

Ash was pretty noticeable on the goal posts and practice sleds.

“He wants to keep our athletes healthy and make sure we're in good shape for our games,” said Bledsoe. “I think it was pretty smart.”

A decision Bledsoe’s mom sure appreciates.

“I think it’s very responsible," Jolene Hively said of the coaches. “I thought it was snowing earlier with all the ashes--but of course it was not.”

School closures because of air quality are rare in Washington state.

According to Washington Department of Health, it's the decision of each individual school district--usually in consultation with a district’s local health department.

The Cle Elum-Roslyn School District announced Tuesday it was delaying the start of its school year until next Monday, Sept. 11. School was supposed to begin Wednesday, Sept. 6, but the ash and poor air quality from the Jolly Mountain Fire near Cle Elum led them to postpone it.