Their voices | NYC students share their experiences going to school with wildfire smoke and hazardous air

As the sky over New York City descended from a milky grey into apocalyptic orange reminiscent of scenes from the Blade Runner series or the surface of Mars, New York City students watched from their classroom windows with emotions ranging from shock to awe with some joking the world had come to an end. 

To learn about what it was like to head into the landscape that soon landed New York City as the most polluted city on the planet, amNewYork Metro talked to four high schoolers — two from The Bronx High School of Science and two from Stuyvesant High School — who shared their experiences of watching their worlds alter dramatically before their eyes and how wildfire smoke blew into the gym at Stuyvesant High School.

The students then shared their thoughts on how the situation could have better been managed by city officials and their school administrations.

Raya Mahmud, 10th grader at Stuyvesant High School

Stuyvesant High School students look out upon an orange-colored landscape influenced by wildfire smoke in New York City on Wednesday, June 7, 2023.Raya Mahmud.

I noticed Tuesday morning that there was a red sun, but I just didn’t think much of it. Then I was scrolling on TikTok and I saw stuff about the Canadian fires. Then in the evening, I saw how yellow it was.

I first went outside for lunch and we noticed right away it kind of smelled like a barbecue. After that, around 1 p.m. or 2 p.m., everyone noticed how orange it got outside, which was really concerning. But not only that, at the time I had gym, and as we entered the gym — the ventilation comes from outside — there was gas forming at the top of the gym. We all had to sit outside in the hallway. It was really concerning how the whole school smelled like smoke, too.

I do dance at school and we were supposed to practice outside. But they even had cancel it inside because when we were supposed to practice, it was really hard to breathe in there because the ventilation was beginning to smoke. They said that in the gym, the ventilation takes the air from outside, so that’s how the smoke got into our school.

Starting at noon and from there, there was a really bad smell in our school.

I was really surprised because I didn’t think it would get that bad, but looking through windows, it was pretty scary, and everyone was kind of joking about how it was like the end of the world.

I think it would have been nice if teachers were told to inform their classes what happened (on Wednesday). Because I think there’s a lot of miscommunication and people don’t know the exact cause or what exactly is happening right now. The steps that could make it feel safer are obviously air purifiers, making sure the windows aren’t open, and just making sure students know what’s going on so they don’t freak out when they see something they’re not used to.

If there was a repeat of (Wednesday), I don’t think I would come to school, especially because of my long commute. I just don’t think it’d be safe to go outside. 

When I found out that there’s like 400 fires ongoing, and 250 of them are uncontrollable, that basically told me that this could go on for who knows how long.

Jacob Shinn, 10th grader at Stuyvesant High School

Stuyvesant High School students watch a French broadcast of the wildfire smoke impacting New York City on Wednesday, June 7, 2023.Jacob Shinn

I’d heard stories about the sun being orange, and I checked my weather app earlier in the day (on Tuesday) that said it would be clear and sunny, but when I went outside it was very hazy. Around the time I left for school, the air had a very interesting smell to it. It smelled like a rubber bucket burning. Then towards the end of the day, it definitely started taking an impact on my lungs.

Around the time that my friends and I left school around 4 p.m. (on Tuesday), it wasn’t that bad. When I was going to Brooklyn, I didn’t really feel it until later on. That’s when it hit like 180 to 200 on the air quality index [50 to 100 is good to moderate air quality] in my area. When I got home, I found that my eyes were more visibly red and I felt very short of breath. When I would spit out my mucus, it would be yellow- or orange-tinted.

My immediate thought was that maybe something was burning in my vicinity. But no matter where I went, it kind of followed me around. I was very curious as to what happened. I looked it up and I saw that there were fires in Canada. It was shocking to me because I didn’t know that the smoke would be drifting that far and it would be that potent in New York.

I didn’t really expect for the pollution in the air to be as high as it was (on Wednesday), so I just went to school without really thinking about it. Definitely towards the middle of the day though, my parents started to get really worried. They said I should just come home immediately because of how the color of the air was and how disgusting it was outside. I definitely agreed with them, but I also had academic things to do after school, so I couldn’t just drop everything and go home.

Towards 1 p.m. in class, we started to see how the haze became very yellow and orange-tinted and we were kind of freaking out a little bit about it. I was in a language class and we sat there watching foreign news on what’s happening in New York. I guess everybody was very worried about it because we all knew that we would have to start wearing masks again, and it was reminiscent of the whole COVID-quarantine thing. 

I happen to be on the same floors as the gym classes and I could see that there was smoke physically within the hallways and the smoke building up inside of school.

My French teacher made the decision of bringing in a bunch of air filters into her classroom. Those were blasting throughout the entire class period, but my next period did not have any and I could definitely smell it there. I think it was on a teacher-to-teacher basis. 

There was no specific communication between the faculty and the students telling us like what was going on outside, until the end of the day, where our assistant principal told all the teachers to shut all the windows, which had already happened. I think it might have been a little bit better if they sent a clear email detailing what we were supposed to do and how they’re going to address what’s happening.

But I think the majority of people in the school knew where it was coming from, but it was definitely a shock because then we learned today (on Thursday) that we were going to be going remote tomorrow for school.

I think the city should do a better job of addressing how long this is gonna go on for. I think it would be a lot better if we had some communication as to when it would really end and then just more pushing to wear masks. I still see a lot of people not wearing masks, and even people smoking in this polluted air, which I think is not a smart decision. I think that a lot of my friends are worried about whether or not the uncontrollable fires in Canada will continue throughout the summer and how that’s going to shape their summer. 

Specifically for our school, we had plans to do a student showcase (on Friday), which is very disappointing for the people who wanted to go. Luckily, it’s just being postponed rather than completely canceled. We also had exams and projects and presentations because the school year is ending. But honestly, I think it’s kind of lucky that we don’t have to undergo that stress right now.

Adrita Risha, 10th grader at The Bronx High School of Science

Students are immersed in wildfire smoke at The Bronx High School of Science in New York City on Wednesday, June 7, 2023.Adrita Risha
The Bronx High School of Science students look out at a wildfire smoke-covered, orange sky in New York City on Wednesday, June 7, 2023.Adrita Risha

When I was smelling the air (on Tuesday), it smelled very polluted. The first thing I thought of was, “Well, I’m Bangladeshi, so it smelled like home.” That sparked my curiosity and I decided to Google it and then I found out about the wildfires.

I was wondering if we would have school on Wednesday and someone posted a fake DOE email saying that there wasn’t school, even though there was. That made me more inclined to not want to go to school, even though it was fake. Then I just I just decided to go anyway. I saw some posts about masks and how only N95s are able to protect you, but I didn’t have one so I just decided to come with no mask at all.

During lunch, I usually like to go outside and get coffee or something. I obviously decided not to do that, even though the sky was only slightly yellow, but I still decided not to go. Then for my AP biology class, we all noticed the window that the color was definitely getting darker. But it 40 minutes later, it was just completely orange and everyone was huddling around the window taking photos and just in awe.

I remember the teachers saying it’s okay to turn on the air conditioners now and then they turned it on. I leave the room, come back 10 minutes later, and then I smelled smoke. Was the air conditioner some way responsible for that? I’m not sure.

It was just really stressful. When I saw it, all I could think about was: How am I going to get home? I just don’t want to go home right now. My head kind of hurts, but I don’t know if it’s from the wildfire or stress about this.

I want to know: What’s the best way to protect myself in this?

Walking through it felt like some dystopian science fiction movie. The sky was just so orange and the streets did feel pretty empty and I didn’t have a mask with me while I was walking in (to school). These two guys were like, “Wear a mask, sweetheart.” 

I definitely started to realize just how far the smoke has spread and for how long it could spread. I just imagined it would drift away a few miles or so. But the fact that it’s coming here all the way from Canada, it just blew me away completely.

We can focus on climate change in the future, but the thing is the future is happening. We’re reaching that point where we need to start worrying. I don’t think we can just continue to procrastinate and wait for climate change to happen to actually do something about it.

Sophia One, 10th grader at The Bronx High School of Science

The Bronx High School of Science students gather around a window showcasing the orange glow of the polluted air from wildfire smoke on Wednesday, June 7, 2023.Sophie One.

I’ve actually never seen this kind of smoke go down upon the skies in New York City. I’ve always heard stories about wildfires in other states like California, and how how bad the conditions are over there, but I would never expect that in New York City.

I knew about it Tuesday morning, because I was just scrolling through the news. I wasn’t surprised that all the smoke has come here, but it definitely got a lot worse on Wednesday. I thought all the smoke would be gone by Wednesday, but it just got a lot worse. It definitely got a lot foggier and I started to smell something burning in the air. 

I take the school bus because I live in Queens and my school is in The Bronx. But I do have to walk to my bus stop for about 10 minutes. I didn’t have a hard time breathing but I definitely knew I wasn’t breathing in clean air. When I got off the bus to my school’s main entrance, I couldn’t see most of the tall buildings that I usually see in the mornings.

For lunch, I usually go outside with my friends. At that time it was around 11 a.m. and the conditions weren’t too bad and it was still breathable. But then throughout the day, the sky got a lot more orange — like abnormally orange, it was crazy. All my classmates literally could not focus on our classwork. All of us were just staring outside the windows in awe. A lot of my classmates were amazed and incredibly shocked, while others did seem concerned about their health and what’s going on outside.

A lot of the reactions from my teachers were more like shock. I saw one of them take a picture outside. It was more of a reaction, instead of saying to students that this is a consequence of climate change, or this happened because of the Canadian wildfires. 

When I left school, the security guards by the main entrance were handing out masks to give to students so that we wouldn’t breathe in the air with carcinogens in it. I kind of had burning sensations in my eyes, but I don’t know if that was just me, or if it had to do something with the air. 

I think there still needs to be research and questions asked about our health. I expected the administration to have sent out an email saying, wear some masks, have some protective gear, and try to limit outdoor activity. If I had known that the New York City DOE recommended not to go outside, then I would have not gone outside to lunch. I think they should have sent a lot more health warnings about this.

I know a lot of students have a long commute to school, which is why I think there should definitely be a remote option. That would be very helpful. 

It got a lot worse for another high school, Stuyvesant. I called my friend in the afternoon and apparently their ventilators were connected outside, so they could literally see fog in their building. 

I think this is definitely a dangerous wake-up call to not only students but to everyone who lives on this planet. Like within only 24 hours, New York City already became the most polluted place in the entire world, which shows that we’re definitely seeing how climate change can personally affect our lives.