Flags work with flying colors

More S.J. schools urged to join air-quality alert program

(October 28, 2011)

This wasn't a day to worry about pollution. The air was crisp, the sky was (mostly) blue, and a slight breeze came from the west.

But not every day feels so fresh, as 12-year-old Taylor Gapuz - and her inhaler - can attest.

Not every day is for running or playing.

"When I can't breathe, it gets scary," Taylor said. "It hurts. Once I had to go to the hospital in an ambulance." Taylor, who has asthma, helped Mossdale School raise its first air-quality flag Thursday.

Hundreds of other schools up and down the San Joaquin Valley already use similar color-coded flags to alert both students and adults about pollution levels when they arrive at school each day.

Most of those schools, however, are in the central or south Valley where the air is often worse. Valley air regulators and health advocates want to see more San Joaquin County schools participate.

Kids may not understand the particulars of particulate matter or the issues with ozone, but it's easy to see that a green flag indicates good air, while a red flag means icky air.

And some of Mossdale's children know why it matters. "If we don't have air, we can't breathe," said 7-year-old Jackson Comley.

Thirty-eight of San Joaquin County's 200-plus public schools participate in the flag program. It's nothing new - flags have been distributed to schools since 2004 - but advocates want the flags to fly at every school, public and private.

"I hope this (flag raising) will stimulate that," Susie Rico-Vasquez of the American Lung Association said after Taylor and another student helped hoist Mossdale's new flag (a healthy green one) Thursday.

"I think what we really need to say is that air quality is still bad, and it's better to be preventative than reactive," Rico-Vasquez said.

The lung association, the Valley Air Pollution Control District and the Health Plan of San Joaquin have teamed up to boost participation.

They also hope schools will sign up for a new electronic notification system, which provides real-time information about air quality and could be used to decide, for example, if pollution is so severe that outdoor athletic events should be canceled.

Mossdale, certainly, had no such choices to make Thursday, with its clean air and its green flag. Valley air district spokeswoman Jaime Holt asked a small assembly of children to take a deep breath, all together.

Then Principal Susan Sanders said, "Today, it is a great day to play."