Schools taking a deep breath

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Whether waiting for a bus, an appointment or otherwise, delays are not easy to deal with. But when the delay involves vital safety information, it can become anxiety-inducing, in addition to just frustrating.

This was the case for the city’s public school teachers last week. With their return to school for professional development Sept. 8, many eyes were on ventilation reports. Once a seemingly obscure subject, how air circulates in classrooms has become a hot button issue, especially considering its role in preventing the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.

The city’s education department took on the gargantuan task of testing the ventilation in every room in every public school building, with the results expected by Sept. 4. That, according to school chancellor Richard Carranza, was plenty of time to review those results, especially over a long holiday weekend leading up to their return to the classroom.

Alas, Sept. 4 arrived, but the ventilation reports did not. They didn’t come Sept. 5, or Sept. 6.. In fact, it was the evening of Sept. 7 — just hours before teachers were expected to return to their classrooms — when the reports were finally released.

Because of the holiday, many teachers weren’t getting a chance to see that report until they were already heading back to school, said Israel Soto, a social studies teacher at Crotona International High School in Belmont.

“We didn’t know the conditions of the buildings, because we just were mandated to come in,” Soto said. “We came in, but we didn’t know if those reports were here or not.”

Soto’s school is located on the Grace Dodge campus not far from Little Italy, which is home to two other schools. The building is old and does not have a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system. And because of the delay receiving the reports, the campus has been the site of daily demonstrations by the teachers who think the school’s conditions aren’t safe for pandemic-era teaching. That’s despite both the education department and United Federation of Teachers union — which conducted its own safety report — saying they are.

“We believe that we should be 100 percent remote until we know that buildings are 100 percent safe,” Soto said. “I looked at the UFT report, and I kind of did my own walkthrough of the building, and some of the answers that were either ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ they were not accurate answers.”

More than 95 percent of the rooms surveyed throughout the city met adequate ventilation requirements, according to the education department. The reports looked for the presence and function of four items in each room: windows, supply fans, exhaust fans and unit ventilators. The presence and function of any of the four would mean the room passed the ventilation check.

Still, 10 public school buildings were shut down as a result of these reports: Two in Brooklyn, two in Queens, and six in Manhattan.

But even with the OK from the education department, some schools just aren’t taking the risk. According to Monique Dols, a math teacher at Bronx Community Charter School, ventilation was one of several factors in her school’s decision to start the academic year remotely. And while non-charter public schools might not have the ability to do that, she believes the option should be available.

“We pressed to start the school year remotely, and the leadership of our school agreed to that,” Dols said. “I think that if principals of DOE schools were given a choice, a lot of them — being aware of the conditions in their school — would likely opt for the same.”

Even though all of the Bronx’s public schools are safe according to the education department’s reports, some teachers remain skeptical. Michael Flanagan, a social studies teacher at Riverdale/Kingsbridge Academy, believes the reports aren’t telling the whole story, as they don’t take air filtration into account.

Air filters are classified through the MERV system — minimum efficiency reporting value — and ranked on a scale of up to 16. The higher the reporting value, the smaller the particles it can filter.

To pass UFT’s safety checklist, a building would need filters of at least MERV 13. But at RKA, the filters are only MERV 8, Flanagan said. And simply replacing the current filters isn’t possible by the time students return on Monday.

“Even if they got the MERV 13 filters delivered today, you would need to completely upgrade the entire system,” Flanagan said. “You would need to install more powerful fans, because those filters are so thick that the fans that we have would be like blowing into a brick wall.”

Air exchange is another concern for Flanagan. While the windows in many classrooms across the city can open, they might not open all the way. They’re purposefully engineered this way to prevent anyone from falling through open windows.

But not having a window open all the way can limit its potential air exchange. And because air exchange through a window relies on weather, as opposed to a motor, it’s possible windows could be excellent ventilators one day, and not do much the next. That’s exactly what Flanagan said happened to him just the other day.

“I had every single window open, but the flag right next to the window wasn’t moving,” he said. “Just because you have a window open does not mean the air is exchanging.”

Soto’s school doesn’t have an HVAC system, meaning it’s only relying on windows for ventilation. And the unpredictability of weather is something that worries him, especially as winter approaches.

“Are we going to cancel school when it’s snowing or when it’s raining?” Soto asked. “We know that the answer is no, (but) that is a question that nobody has given us an answer to.”

RKA might be worlds ahead of Grace Dodge and other Bronx public schools when it comes to ventilation worries, but simply being better equipped doesn’t reassure Flanagan.

“My school, we’re in better shape than a lot of other schools in the city,” the veteran teacher said. “But we’re not a safe environment for children and staff.”

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