Without School Ventilation Reports, Teachers And Parents Are Still Working “In The Dark”

On Friday, leaders of the city’s largest teachers union are expected to receive final reports from the city’s Department of Education on whether their buildings have proper ventilation to prevent transmission of the coronavirus.

But those reports compiled by School Ventilation Action Team — engineers brought in by the School Construction Authority to measure airflow at each school classroom — have not been shared publicly so far, despite Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza telling reporters last week the DOE “will have all results online by September 4th, well in advance of the first day of school.”

Susan Justice, a chapter leader with the United Federation of Teachers who teaches at the High School for Telecommunication, Arts and Technology in Bay Ridge, hasn’t received the report on her school. At a Thursday meeting among chapter leaders to discuss reopening, she was told that the ventilation reports that would outline building deficiencies could be sent this weekend.

“We were told at the meeting yesterday that you might not get until Saturday. Some people might not get it to until Sunday. So the question is, if there are deficiencies still, what’s our recourse? Do we still go in?” said Justice. “How do we send teachers into buildings where we don’t know if it’s safe? So I think that is really what the big issue is right now.”

A principal from a school on the Upper West Side, who asked not to be identified because they’re not authorized to speak to the press, said they haven’t received a report either.

“It leaves school communities further in the dark,” said Councilmember Mark Treyger, the education committee chair. “I think it puts additional strain on those workers who are going to have to do have to have to do follow up work.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Thursday he was briefed on the progress by SVAT and told that the number of classrooms ready to go is in the “high 90 percent” window, adding the city is “seeing good results right now.”

School buildings flagged for improper ventilation will not be used. Teachers will have the option to go fully remote, and if they’re forced to go into an unsafe building, it could trigger a teacher strike.

[Update, 9 p.m.] Avery Cohen, a spokesperson for de Blasio, told Gothamist, “We’ve completed the last of our inspections, and will be sharing a comprehensive report next week. Classrooms in need of improved ventilation will be brought offline once in-person learning begins and will remain offline until these repairs are completed.”

The news on the delay comes a day after the New York City Council’s education committee held a hearing on school reopening. Members heard from Mariela Graham, a principal at the High School of Arts and Technology that’s housed in the Martin Luther King Campus in Manhattan, a school she testified has no windows and is wholly reliant on ventilation.

She recounted several visits by the SVAT, which assessed rooms within the school that’s located in the basement.

“There had been no fewer than four walkthroughs by various agencies and groups in the last three weeks,” said Graham, a mother of three children. “We have yet to see any reports associated with those walkthroughs. The one report that we have received is from the UFT that says that there are significant concerns with the operation of the ventilation systems serving the building. We have not received a report regarding the findings of the Ventilation Action Team that visited the campus on August 25th with the infamous tissue paper, yardstick, and binder clips used to measure airflow.”

Last week, the SVAT determined, without explanation, that 18 classrooms on the campus were “deemed to have minimal or no airflow.”

Graham, despite her duty to ensure safety, said she was offered no other explanation other than to “relocate those classes to other rooms.”

“We are asking for two simple things: One transparency regarding the process about how a classroom is deemed safe; and two a quantifiable measure that confirms a classroom is indeed safe,” said Graham. “Until we have [those] two things we cannot look at students and parents and staff in the eye and tell them that it is safe to return to our campus.”

Treyger told Gothamist that his recommendation is to keep the MLK Campus closed, seeing as how the school can’t have all the issues fixed by the time schools open. “So they’re just, in a way, delaying the inevitable so to speak,” said Treyger of the DOE.

The creation of SVAT is intended to add another layer of vetting for each classroom, as the SCA has stressed that the work of evaluating and preparing public school buildings began in June. Classrooms will be cleaned daily with electrostatic tools, while personal protective equipment will be available at every school, as part of the agreed-upon conditions between the city and school labor unions.

Lorraine Grillo, the president of SCA, said classrooms with ventilation problems will either be fixed before the first day of school or not be used at all until a fix is made. Grillo has previously noted that school MERV-13 filters—considered high quality in removing contaminants from air filters—have been installed in some schools, though she did not elaborate how many. HEPA filters, which were approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to also be installed in HVAC systems, have also been utilized.

De Blasio announced a new start date for in-person learning to be September 21st, 11 days after the original date. This came following pressure by the UFT and Council of School Supervisors and Administrators to hold off on the start of in-person learning until teachers receive more training for remote instruction and even more time to prepare the schools. Students are expected to begin their school year remotely on September 16th.

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