By Christina Veiga, Chalkbeat New York
New York City’s education department on Tuesday released room-level inspection reports for the ventilation systems at every single public school and found most classrooms are safe to reopen, but most school bathrooms are not.
Mayor Bill de Blasio promised the records would help school communities understand all the precautions put into place for Sept. 21, when students are slated to return to in-person learning for the first time since the pandemic forced the country’s largest school system to close its doors last spring.
The reports released Tuesday show that 96% percent of classrooms had functioning ventilation systems, leaving another 2,882 in need of repairs.
Many school bathrooms will need attention, though, with only 43% percent deemed usable, and repairs needed in 13,248 others, according to the city.
Overall, officials say that 81% of school spaces are up to par. Those that can’t be fixed before the school year starts will not be used. The city already took off-line 10 buildings, housing 21 schools, less than a day before teachers were expected to report back there to begin their preparations for the new year.
“The ventilation issue was: Was there proper air circulation, in combination with all the other health and safety measures? And what this inspection regimen was trying to determine is which classrooms had that,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “I don’t think it’s a lot more complex than that.”
Since school buildings were shuttered in March, a growing body of evidence has shown that the coronavirus can linger in the air. That has made proper ventilation a key line of defense, in addition to mask-wearing and social distancing. Experts say that classrooms need to have fresh air coming in and stale air being pulled out — which can usually be accomplished with fans, powerful air filters, open windows, and, in spaces where all that is not enough, portable air purifiers.
City leaders have offered little explanation for how they are determining that ventilation is up to par and whether buildings are safe to reopen. The reports released Tuesday include a breakdown of whether each space in a building has at least one functioning window, and whether the mechanical components of the ventilation system are working in that room. There is no determination included in the reports of whether a particular classroom is usable.
That information is a good starting point, said William P. Bahnfleth, a professor and the chair of the Epidemic Task Force at The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, which has issued ventilation guidance for schools that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has adopted. He wishes the reports also showed the amount of outdoor air circulating in each space has been measured, and compared against the size of the room and the number of teachers and students expected to be inside.
“They don’t go to the extent of verifying that the outdoor air supply and filtration are what you would hope they would be,” Bahnfleth said of the reports. “You would hope that a building that is going to be occupied would be checked more thoroughly.”
Lorraine Grillo, the head of the School Construction Authority, or SCA, suggested the city is working with unions to conduct “engineering-type” inspections along the lines that Bahnfleth recommends. But she did not provide specifics.
Grillo said those returning to school “can feel very confident that the union, as well as SCA and school facilities have been working very hard to make every classroom safe.”
Not everyone is convinced.
When Principal Rashid Davis saw the education department’s list of schools with ventilation issues so serious that they cannot immediately open, he was surprised that his school, P-Tech, the Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Brooklyn, was not on it.
He recalled about P-Tech’s ongoing effort to overhaul the century-old school’s ventilation system. He thought about how construction noise and dust would float inside classrooms if the building’s windows are open, and the scaffolding that would block fresh air from coming in.
“We should be on this list,” Davis emailed his school community late Monday, and attached P-Tech’s own ventilation inspection report. It spans three pages and shows not a single space has a working supply or exhaust fan to promote air circulation.
Davis raised the alarm in an email to senior city officials, and said a raft of union and education department leaders came to his building Tuesday morning to hear his concerns. They promised the building’s fans would work by the time students arrive. He’s worried not only about classrooms, but also hallways and bathrooms, and wants to know what criteria are being used to keep the building open, while shuttering others.
“We don’t know that,” he said. “And without knowing that, it’s not as transparent as they are saying.”
Without such details, some educators said they are taking the matter into their own hands. Melissa Williams, for one, ordered a simple wind speed meter. Since Williams, an occupational therapist in Washington Heights, has an accommodation that allows her to work from home this school year, she handed off the $30 device to a colleague who planned to use it to check the airflow in her own classroom.
“I do not feel safe with my coworkers going into my workplace,” Williams said.
At the Grace Dodge Campus in the Bronx, which houses three schools, teachers were told they could use the cafeteria for their own lunch breaks. That’s worrisome for Israel Soto, a union representative and social studies teacher at the campus, who said the space has neither functioning air conditioning nor windows that open.
Soto and his colleagues at Crotona International High School rallied outside the building on Tuesday morning to highlight their safety concerns and demand that the school year begin with remote instruction only.
“There’s no ventilation,” Soto said of the lunch room, adding that the campus has faced maintenance issues for years. “We’ve been saying it, that’s the sad part. It’s not that it has not been known.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.