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Martin Guerrero, left, and Rachelle Parker, both visiting from Austin, Texas, look toward the foothills that are partially obscured by smoke from wildfires in the West. They were heading out for a hike Thursday on the South Boulder Creek West Trail. (Timothy Hurst/Staff Photographer)
Martin Guerrero, left, and Rachelle Parker, both visiting from Austin, Texas, look toward the foothills that are partially obscured by smoke from wildfires in the West. They were heading out for a hike Thursday on the South Boulder Creek West Trail. (Timothy Hurst/Staff Photographer)
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University of Colorado Boulder researchers have been awarded $1.1 million in Environmental Protection Agency grants for projects aimed at reducing the impact of wildfire smoke on schools and communities.

Assistant Professor Colleen Reid will receive $549,919 to put particulate matter sensors inside 20 Denver-area schools and at 30 homes near those schools to compare indoor and outdoor air quality.

Assistant Professor Marina Vance will receive $549,000 to study how particulate matter from wildfires is transported into homes and what can be done to reduce that exposure, including through air cleaning, ventilation and building sealing.

Reid is partnering with the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment, which already places sensors at select schools to monitor outdoor air quality.

Current health guidance states that schools should decide whether to close for wildfire smoke impacts based on whether schools or homes are likely to have better indoor air quality — except most schools and communities do not have reliable information on indoor and outdoor air quality, Reid said.

“We are trying to answer the question: Is it safer for children to be at home or at school when air pollution is really bad?” Reid said.

Front Range communities have seen dozens of alert days for poor air quality since May because of wildfire smoke and other pollutants. In Colorado and across the West, those wildfires are linked to higher temperatures and drought caused by climate change.

Reid, who has previously studied the impacts of wildfire smoke and pollution, said she was excited about this particular EPA grant because of its focus on interventions that protect people’s health.

“I also have young children in elementary school, and thinking about decisions related to COVID made me think about air quality in schools and wildfire smoke,” she said. “Children are a sensitive subpopulation and it is a place where there’s a need for data to inform science-based decision making related to air quality.”

Working with Denver’s existing Love My Air program was another benefit, Reid said, though if there isn’t a wildfire smoke impact in Denver next year, Reid will seek other school districts and parts of the state that are impacted.

The Love My Air program currently includes 34 schools, said air quality program manager Michael Ogletree, and aims to reach 40 schools. Given Love My Air’s past work with Reid, participating in the new program was an easy decision to make, Ogletree said.

“We’re really excited, and I think it’s going to add a piece to our program we don’t currently have. The more data we can get, the more we can use that data to inform decisions and the better we will be able to protect our school communities,” he said.