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Schools getting new guidelines on air quality

Standards set for when kids stay inside for recess

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The Utah Department of Health and the Utah Department of Environmental Quality have updated guidelines regarding when schoolchildren should go outside for recess and when they should stay in.

The change should make it easier for school administrators and parents to keep children safe on bad air days. "As a mother, I don't want to send my children out to play when the air isn't healthy for them," said Cherise Udell, a mother in the Salt Lake School District.

Not only were the guidelines rewritten to keep children with respiratory problems from being exposed to dirty air, but to allow healthy children to go outside when conditions aren't as bad.

The old guidelines were too restrictive, said Rebecca Jorgensen, an asthma health program specialist. In the past, when particulate pollution levels reached a certain threshold, all students were kept in the school regardless of whether the particulates affected them.

"We were worried we were keeping healthy kids inside," she said.

Now, staying in or going out for recess will be determined according to three specific levels of particulate pollution. At the lowest level, the guidelines recommend sensitive students, those with poorly controlled asthma, cystic fibrosis, chronic lung disease, congenital heart disease and compromised immune systems, remain indoors. Readings at the middle level would restrict students with respiratory difficulties such as coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and tightness of the chest from going outside. At the highest level, all students would be kept inside for physical activity.

Changes were made based on new science, experience, a study involving Utah children and new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules, Jorgensen said. "The EPA changed their standards and we wanted to align with them," she said.

Health officials say the guidelines give schools greater flexibility in allowing healthy students to exercise outside while providing a conservative level of protection when outdoor activities are not recommended for all students.

The guidelines are not mandated by state law or policy but are a strategy to help schools make informed decisions.

Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsely said district officials keep in contact with the health department, and when it is determined air quality is poor, students are kept inside for recess. Each school has an indoor activities plan to help students with inside recreation. District leaders are trained on the new guidelines, and the district will implement them in the upcoming months, he said.

Parents with children who are affected by particulate pollution can visit the health department's Web site at www.health.utah.gov/asthma for hourly air quality updates. If pollution levels are high, parents should inform the school to make alternate arrangements for recess.

E-mail: lwilde@desnews.com