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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

In this mid-January photo, children play outdoors at Franklin School during the noon recess. Many schools in Kern County raise a colored flag each day to inform parents, students and staff about the air quality expected for the day.

Air quality in central Bakersfield was "moderate" Thursday, and parents with children at schools with a yellow flag out front knew it.

The flag signaled to educators and parents that it was OK for students to play outside, information that is particularly important for campuses in Kern County, where one in five children has asthma.

But only about half -- or roughly 700 -- of schools in the San Joaquin Valley raise color-coded flags to alert the public to air quality conditions, according to San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District estimates.

The district would like to change that, so Thursday it held news conferences across the valley to remind principals and the public about its three-pronged Healthy Air Living Schools Program.

"If your school isn't participating, it may behoove you to make a phone call and ask if they'd like to consider it," said Janelle Schneider, outreach and communications representative for the district.

The program has three components.

There's the Air Quality Flag Program: green equals "good," yellow is "moderate," orange is "unhealthy for sensitive groups," red is "unhealthy" and purple is "very unhealthy."

There's also the Real-Time Air Advisory Network, or RAAN, that can be accessed on any computer or other Internet-connected device. The network offers 24-hour access to air quality monitors throughout the valley, providing up-to-the-minute localized air quality data.

The district encourages principals to access the network to change flag colors as needed, but any member of the public is welcome to check out the network, too.

The Healthy Air Living Schools Program also has an anti-idling campaign. It's aimed at reducing emissions by getting drivers to cut off their engines when they're waiting to drop off or pick up students. Schools are given signage and other materials to help raise awareness of the issue.

Sasha Windes is executive director of Kern Green, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the environment through education and awareness, and the parent of a child with asthma.

Air quality flags empower families like hers to make good decisions, she said.

"Sometimes it may look like it's a blue sky day, but really it's a red flag day and they need to keep the kids indoors," Windes said.

The Bakersfield City School District made the flag program official policy in 2009. At the news conference at BCSD's Cesar E. Chavez Elementary School, Principal Dawn Slaybaugh said participating makes managing outdoor activities easier.

"Our whole purpose in doing this is to start with the children by teaching them to look at the flag," she said. "They don't need to be told to get off the playground or to take it easy. They just look and see that the flag is red or purple, and they know. We are training them as early as kindergarten."

Since Chavez implemented the program, it has had fewer ambulance calls and less absenteeism because asthma is the No. 1 cause of missed school days, Slaybaugh said.

The program also helps children with respiratory illnesses feel less excluded, she said.

"It's hard to see children outside playing if you have asthma, to see them having fun and you can't join in," she said. "So we abide by the flag colors, and for all children, if it's orange or red, no one is outside playing."

The Healthy Air Living Schools Program is purely voluntary, so it is implemented sporadically, even within individual school districts.

In southwest Bakersfield's Panama-Buena Vista Union School District, for instance, some schools raise colored flags, and others do not.

"I present to the principals every year what the choices are, and after that it's up to them to decide if they want to use it or to what extent. We don't monitor it," said Gerrie Kincaid, Panama's assistant superintendent of educational services.

Unfortunately, healthy air advocates got a little boost in December and January, when there were some purple flag days -- the worst possible rating.

The Fruitvale School District had been participating "informally" for about a year and a half, said Superintendent Mary Westendorf.

"It was really more of an as-needed basis. I remember when I was a principal, I had this one student with just terrible, terrible asthma, and I'd look outside and say, 'Gosh, I really need to bring him in,' " she said. "But since we had those really bad days in January, we've gotten more serious about it."

The American Lung Association, which helped develop the flag program more than a decade ago, "highly encourages" more schools to get on board.

"The health of our children will be better, and it will bring piece of mind to parents because they will know that if it's a really bad air quality day, their children's activities will be adjusted," said Director Tamira Smith Lopez. "They know that the school cares about the children enough to protect their health."