Rising Teacher COVID-19 Cases and School Ventilation Issues Raise Concerns About School Reopenings

by Chanell Turner / NYCTeachers.com

“Let’s just get real—an open window is not gonna cut it.” Monona Rossol, an industrial hygienist and chemist, made this comment during a virtual training with MORE-UFT, a group within the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), that does not support the reopening of schools. The training’s purpose was to break down recent ventilation reports released by the NYC Department of Education (DOE). For the MORE-UFT group, and likely many parents, the feeling is that the DOE data is not sufficient to determine whether school buildings are safe for the September 21, 2020 reopening date. 

A Demand for Upgraded Ventilation Systems

Almost 1,500 reports were released, and in response, Mayor Bill de Blasio felt the data conveyed that more than 95 percent of classrooms were in “good working order.” He went on to conclude that: “These results for individual schools are preliminary and are intended to help focus our repair and maintenance efforts. They do not indicate any space’s ability to open on Monday, September 21, as we are continuing to repair and correct any outstanding ventilation issues.”

Ever since reopening talks began, the UFT had demanded to see upgraded ventilation systems installed in schools before children stepped back into classrooms toward the latter part of this month. While the report does start the conversation on whether the basic ventilation standards are met, some feel it is falling short of providing more detailed insight into what it would take to satisfy parents’ and teachers’ safety concerns.

For example, the study addresses whether schools have windows to open, fans running, and operational HVAC systems. However, people like Rossol feel this fails to address whether air is safely ventilated out of classrooms, or if it is just recirculating possibly contaminated air within the building. The remedy, he and others feel is that all schools should have air filtration systems of the same standard as hospitals. These more advanced MERV-13 systems are installed in some schools, but there has not been any record of how many currently have them. 

The Part Ventilation Plays in Fighting COVID-19

In the nation’s—and NYC’s— fight against COVID-19, topics like social distancing, mask-wearing, and quarantine are identified as ways to slow the spread. Nevertheless, ventilation has not always been in the conversation. However, as Rossol and the MORE-UFT group have come to assess, adequate air filtration systems play a huge role in slowing the infection rate of COVID-19. 

A report by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control discussed how “poor ventilation in confined indoor spaces is associated with increased transmission of respiratory infections.” However, the report does acknowledge that the connection between ventilation and COVID-19 is undefined. Nevertheless, the same can likely be true for this infection since it is transmitted through aerosol droplets that can easily spread in areas without proper ventilation—a significant worry for teachers stepping back into classrooms. 

A Rise in Teacher Infections is Cause for Concern

The release of the report and Rossol’s assessments come at a time when 24 teachers have tested positive for COVID-19 as educational professionals returned to work last week. Many teachers were unaware that they were working alongside colleagues who were infected. The DOE has also refused to share how many people were exposed to these teachers as well as those sent home to quarantine. 

Parents and teachers alike are feeling unsatisfied by the lack of clear information coming from the DOE. According to the New York Post, numerous teachers discussed how they didn’t receive notification about colleagues who tested positive for COVID-19. Additionally, a parent advisory group is taking “legal action” against the DOE to stop District 16 schools from reopening due to unreleased ventilation and building condition reports. 

The UFT and many parents still feel building conditions are unsafe and that they are not receiving timely information about teachers infected with or exposed to COVID-19. If the situation remains, it might mean that many teachers refuse to step into the classroom on September 21. The 2020 NYC school year outlook is still taking shape, and the DOE and Mayor de Blasio have almost less than a week left to take care of everyone’s concerns. Only time will tell if they can meet parents’ and teachers’ demands as the reopening day approaches.