Ahead Of NYC School Reopening, 1,500 Classrooms Still Undergoing Ventilation Repairs

According to data analyzed by WNYC/Gothamist, more than 1,500 public school classrooms in New York City still need work to make their ventilation safe enough for students to return during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Another 104 classrooms have been closed indefinitely.

The city’s Department of Education (DOE) has promised to make these repairs before school starts, and hundreds of classrooms have been upgraded in the past year. Nevertheless, the magnitude of the task is daunting as 1 million students prepare to return to the nation’s largest public school system, which has also refused to offer a broad distance option this school year.

WNYC/Gothamist has compiled the individual ventilation examinations collected by the DOE for its school buildings. Based on this data, available as an interactive map below, the city reports that 97% of classroom ventilation systems are working as designed, thanks to a quick audit, two summer repairs and the purchase of air filters.

Our analysis found that while many school buildings report having 100% operational classrooms, 19 city-managed buildings experienced ventilation problems in half or more of their classrooms as of August 29.

“I wouldn’t rely on ‘They told us it worked,'” says Dr. Lidia Morawska, a professor at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, who specializes in air quality and airborne particles called aerosols. “Parents should demand evidence that it has been checked and how it has been checked.”

The DOE said a civil engineer conducts a daily walkthrough in every school building so that the ventilation tracker is updated when a room’s status changes. The map below will be updated every Wednesday for the next few weeks so parents can track these maintenance projects until they’re complete.

The data is based only on built-in ventilation, such as HVAC systems and windows. They don’t consider the air purifiers placed in every classroom or the trapping of particles “MERV-13” filters added to window A/C units.

But the latter is only useful if a room has air conditioning. Four years ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio committed all classrooms should have access to air conditioning by 2022, but the city’s latest report said about 12,000 classrooms still don’t have air conditioners from this January. Some experts have also raised concerns about the effectiveness of the Intellipur branded air purifiers purchased by the DOE, pointing out that they lack the recommended high-efficiency HEPA filters. by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the air

An open question is whether the 1,517 classrooms currently being maintained will be used for instruction when school begins September 13. The Ministry of Education website states that classrooms under repair will not be released for occupancy until such repairs or remedial work are completed.

When asked for immediate clarification that classrooms labeled “repairs in progress” will not be used on the first day of school, an education department spokesperson did not confirm, but promised that all rooms would be ready on time. The city also said it plans to purchase larger air purifiers and install window fans for cafeterias.

“The DOE prioritises all ventilation repairs within their jurisdiction. Some repairs are financially strong and supervised by the SCA [School Construction Authority],” the spokesperson said in an emailed reply to WNYC/Gothamist. “Any space in use will have operational ventilation by natural or mechanical means, or a combination of both, and supplemented by air purifiers.”

Last week, school chancellor Meisha Porter claimed her department had made all the repairs.

“Last year our amazing, professional engineers surveyed every room and building in the city to identify any repairs that needed to be done,” Porter said August 26 at a City Hall press conference announcing the new COVID policy for public schools. “Our incredible facilities team has made those repairs and continues to maintain that high level of ventilation.”

A few schools, such as New Bridges Elementary in Crown Heights, list every classroom as pending repairs. Some large high school buildings, such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School in Mapleton and Washington Irving Campus in Gramercy Park, each have more than 80 classrooms in need of maintenance.

The stakes are high. The delta variant has boosted pediatrics Covid cases and hospital admissions in New York State, even before the full return to personal schooling. Children under 12 are not eligible for any of the COVID vaccines, and National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins recently said that: he did not expect this authorization before the end of the year.

Community transmission of the virus, meanwhile, remains high. Data from the city’s Ministry of Health and Mental Hygiene shows a moving average of nearly 2,000 daily cases, a count not seen since April. And unlike last year, when about 60 percent of students chose to learn online, nearly all students will learn in-person in September, except during quarantine after exposure to COVID.

“I’m thrilled to be going back,” said Lydia Howrilka, a social science teacher at Clara Barton High School and a member of the Solidarity Caucus, a subgroup within the United Federation of Teachers. “But we’re seeing a lot of COVID cases popping up, especially pediatric COVID cases. I don’t want kids to get sick.”

Outdated buildings and limited data

Many of the city’s school buildings that are undergoing extensive repairs were built in the 1920s, with some dating even earlier. One building, home to the Longwood Preparatory Academy in the Bronx, was constructed in 1905. According to the DOE’s Aug. 29 ventilation data, 39 of the 48 classrooms are currently being repaired.

Older buildings don’t have HVAC and may be impossible or prohibitively expensive to retrofit, explains Jordan Peccia, a professor of environmental engineering at Yale University. Instead, these schools often rely on windows, which provide a more difficult to control and less controllable airflow compared to HVAC or other forms of mechanical ventilation.

Last summer, some teachers reported that their windows were painted shut, occupied by window air conditioning units, or otherwise not a reliable source of fresh air.

“That way you can get ventilation,” Peccia said of windows. “But you can’t ventilate very well that way either.”

Some New York City schools with the greatest repair burden are clustered in neighborhoods hit hard by COVID-19 and are facing a new wave of the delta variant. The New Bridges Elementary School zip code – 11213 in Crown Heights – is one of the city’s least protected and highest transmission neighborhoods.

This zip code has only fully vaccinated 40% of its residents and has registered 213 new cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days. Over the course of the pandemic, it has witnessed an above-average death rate, with 294 of its residents succumbing to COVID-19. According to data from the Department of Education, all 48 classrooms in the New Bridges building are being repaired.

The DOE’s ratings are binary and reflect only the presence or absence of ventilation rather than how effectively ventilation systems replace and filter the air. Experts said specific metrics, such as the number of air changes per hour or the carbon dioxide concentration in a room, could shed more light. However, monitoring engineers do have carbon dioxide monitors chalk stroke reported last week that the devices may not be used regularly.

The DOE’s ventilation numbers are also shifting as repairs are completed or classrooms are taken out of service, and there has been a series of updates in recent weeks. For example, on August 17, the building housing the Brooklyn Arts and Science Elementary School reported that all 40 classrooms were under repair. By August 25, all but one had been marked operational. PS 195 and PS 196 in the Bronx also underwent rapid updates in a short time: 32 classrooms marked “repair in progress” on August 25 were back “operational” on August 29.

The city also collects data on non-classrooms in schools, including cafeterias, gyms, locker rooms and offices. According to the August 29 data record, about 90% of all classrooms are operational, with the rest either lacking mechanical ventilation or undergoing repairs.

Last week, Mayor de Blasio announced this school year’s COVID-19 school safety guidelines, which include universal masking, one meter distance and random testing for unvaccinated members of each school.

Multiple “layers of protection” are needed to protect students from the delta variant, said Dr. William Bahnfleth, a professor of engineering at Penn State University. And even then, these strategies can only reduce, never rule out children’s risk.

“There is a belief that we can make schools completely safe, in the sense that if we did it right, no one would get infected,” he said. “That’s a pretty unrealistic expectation. Children will get sick because they go to school, and we have to take that into account.”

Caroline Lewis and Jessica Gould contributed to the report.

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