Council takes up lack of HVAC in schools

The Boston City Council discussed plans to address the safety conditions of Boston Public Schools buildings and classrooms during extreme temperatures during a virtual meeting on Sept. 30.

General Councilor and Chair of the Boston City Council Education Committee, Annissa Essaibi George, led the discussion between representatives from Boston Public Schools (BPS), the Boston Education Justice Alliance, Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH), and Councilors Ricardo Arroyo, Michael Flaherty, Julia Mejia and Michelle Wu.

Arroyo addressed the concerns of BPS students, teachers and staff regarding the extreme temperatures in classrooms and school buildings and their effect on health and safety conditions in the schools. Essaibi George read a statement from Councilman Ed Flynn, who was unable to attend the meeting.

“I believe that we should ensure that our students learn in an environment that protects them from extreme heat and cold, especially in buildings that-controlled with good ventilation and insulation,” Flynn wrote in his statement. “I urge BPS to explore funding sources to equip our school buildings with HVAC systems so that our students, teachers and staff can learn and work in a healthy and safe environment.”

BPS Executive Director of Facilities Brian Forde presented BPS’ plans to provide air conditioning in every school. BPS was awarded a contract to purchase 6,400 air conditioners from George Washington Toma TV and Appliance (GWTOMA) with support from the City of Boston Purchasing Office. The BPS Facilities Department completes contract with Lynnwell Associates Electrical Contractors to install air conditioners, address electrical infrastructure of BPS buildings and prepare windows for the air conditioners.

BPS expects installation to begin in October and last until spring. This plan may change due to supply chain changes, COVID-19 and labor issues.

Forde also presented BPS’ plans to assess the use of shading in buildings and compare material and labor costs from installing and repairing shading to upgrading the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in the buildings. According to Forde, BPS provides access to potable water in all schools and outdoor water sources are not available at every school.

Many BPS buildings were built before World War II. BPS plans to equip new school buildings with “modern comprehensive HVAC systems”, which will allow heating and cooling to be adjusted “at the touch of a button”, and which will be controlled and monitored both in the school and remotely. In the summer of 2021, the Extended School Year (ESY) took place in 13 BPS buildings. TechBoston Academy was the only school without air conditioning.

BPS Deputy Chief of Operations Samuel DePina addressed Flaherty and Mejia’s concerns about current classrooms and buildings currently affected by temperatures and air quality. According to DePina, these schools are instructed to contact their administrators, who should contact their school principal, who should then contact the Building Services Department of Energy to adjust temperature controls in school buildings.

In May 2021, BPS published the results of Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) and Air Changes Per Hour (ACH) testing and concluded that most schools “did not require additional repairs or updates,” in addition to 13 schools that had necessary repairs:

• Boston Academy of Art
• Charlestown High School
• Community Academy of Science and Health
• Dearborn VOTE 6-12 Academy
• Ellison, Dr. Catherine/Parks, Rosa Early Education School
• Haley, Dennis C. Pilot School
• Haynes, Rev. Dr. Michael E. Center for Early Education
• Lee, Joseph K-8 School
• Mission Hill K-8 School
• Muniz, Margarita Academy
• Murphy, Richard J. K-8 School
• O’Bryant, John D. School of Math & Science
Ohrberger, William H. SchooI

Arroyo, Mejia and BPS Chief Operations Officer Indira Alvarez acknowledged that BPS classrooms can reach extreme temperatures before COVID-19 hit schools. Alvarez stressed that the main differences between fighting the problem in the past and the present are the resources available to upgrade or repair the infrastructure in BPS buildings.

The executive director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, Ruby Reyes, spoke about the disparities for repairs to facilities and resources in BPS buildings. Reyes also stated that “no equity analysis has been completed” to assess the decisions of which schools will receive ESY and which schools will receive new HVAC systems.

“These unjust decisions will ultimately hurt our students who need it most, including black, Latino, English and students with disabilities,” said Reyes. “Summer programming in BPS buildings is often used by students attending summer school or students with disabilities in ESY, or the Extended School Year, and various summer programs.”

MassCOSH’s youth organizers have also “worked on this issue for many years around a heat campaign… well before the summer 90-degree day streak,” Reyes said.

Maddie Taylor, an 11th-grader at Boston Latin School who also worked with MassCOSH on the Teens Lead at Work program, described her experience taking the MCAS in June 2021 in a hot and humid dining room and said she felt the need to rush through the test to get out of the dining room faster. Taylor also recalled experiencing unpleasant hot and cold temperatures before COVID-19 and wearing winter coats in class because the building didn’t have enough heat.

Joe Tache, director of MassCOSH Youth Programs, pointed to Taylor’s story as an example of why BPS buildings need more than just classroom air conditioners.

“There are other areas in schools where students and teachers are daily and sometimes have to take these high-stakes tests,” Tache said. “I think it’s really important to update the HVAC systems in every building to make sure there’s quality ventilation and temperature control throughout the school.”

MassCOSH Executive Director Jodi Sugerman-Brozan testified to encourage attendees to consider OSHA’s “new special enforcement initiatives around heat-related hazards” for both indoor and outdoor workers. Sugerman-Brozan also encouraged them to take initiative with laws to protect teachers and staff working in school buildings from heat-related hazards.

Molly Swanton is an assistant editor at the Scope, a project of the Northeastern University School of Journalism

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