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Smoky skies and poor air quality from the Northern California fires has prompted nearly 600 school closures across a wide swath of the San Francisco Bay Area, affecting about 260,000 students.

Smoky air can cause difficulty breathing, especially for those with asthma, as well as runny nose, irritated eyes and shortness of breath. Children are especially vulnerable because their respiratory systems are still developing.

Although some of the closed schools are more than 50 miles from the fire zones, wind has pushed the smoke over a broad area. How long schools will be closed depends on how long the fires continue, and at what level.

Schools in Sonoma, Napa, Solano, Mendocino and Contra Costa counties are closed at least for Thursday, and in some cases Friday as well. Schools closer to the fire zone have been closed all week. A list of closed districts, as of Thursday morning, can be found here.

“We wanted to do what’s safest for our students,” said Nicky Mora, spokeswoman for Pittsburg Unified which is located more than 50 miles from the Napa Valley in the East Bay’s Contra Costa County. The district had received numerous calls from concerned parents on Tuesday, and Superintendent Janet Schulze made the decision to close schools after conferring with the board Wednesday night.

Many other districts, including Oakland Unified,  have canceled after-school sports practices and allowed parents to keep their children home if necessary.

On Monday, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said schools could apply for funds to replace Average Daily Attendance money lost from the closures. State law allows districts to continue to receive their ADA funds in emergencies.

“Safety for students and school staff is a top priority of the California Department of Education. Any schools forced to close as a result of the fires may be able to recoup these important ADA funds,” Torlakson said. “My staff will help affected school administrators through the process of applying for waivers due to school closures. Schools should not suffer financially or in any other way for putting safety first in any kind of emergency.”

The funding is available to schools in Orange County, as well, where fires have forced school closures earlier in the week.

Torlakson also reminded schools that students left homeless by the fires are protected by state and federal laws, and can enroll in school without having to submit paperwork such as proof of residency.

In addition, the state Department of Education sent two truckloads of frozen food and dry goods to the Redwood Empire Food Bank in Santa Rosa to assist fire victims. More food shipments will be sent later, said department spokesman Scott Roark.

“Please know that your child’s safety was the primary factor leading to this decision,” Antioch Unified’s superintendent Stephanie Anello wrote on the district’s website Wednesday afternoon. “Many of our students walk or ride their bike to and from school and will be exposed to the poor air quality even if we were to remain open and shelter in place as we did today.” Antioch is over 70 miles from Santa Rosa, one of the areas most affected by the fires.

Because of the uncertainties about the fire, she wrote, “pending the containment of the fires, we ask that you make a short-term plan for your children should we need to close schools on Friday.”

School leaders in Vacaville Unified, which is a half hour drive to Napa, wrote that because air quality “is now at hazardous levels” all Vacaville Unified schools and offices will be closed on Thursday and Friday.

Vallejo City Unified, which is 16 miles from Napa, will be closed until next Tuesday.

How many school buildings have themselves been damaged or destroyed by the fire is not yet known. For these schools and districts, there is far greater uncertainty about what happens next, as families whose homes have been destroyed or damaged figure out where they will live.

Higher education institutions are also affected.  Sonoma State University encouraged students to leave campus as soon as possible, even though the campus is not under an official evacuation order. “If you have a way to leave campus safely and get to a safe place, please do so now,” the school wrote on its Facebook page. Diablo Valley Community College, Contra Costa Community College and Holy Names College were also closed Thursday.

A list of Northern California school closures can be found on the KQED website.

This story was updated at 9:31 p.m. with additional information from the state.

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