No ventilation, poor air quality pushed many districts to go remote

Many public school buildings in New Jersey are close to a hundred years old with antiquated, or no, ventilation systems. Willingboro is one of the the nearly 250 districts that have opted for all-remote learning

“Some of our current challenges are as follows: Number one, inadequate HV systems to properly ventilate rooms. This can serve as a major issue in regards to the high temperatures during the month of September. Many of our schools have only partial air conditioning, making the early months of the school year an additional challenge,” said Willingboro Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Neely Hackett.

Allen Barkkume’s environment council has been evaluating school ventilation systems around the state.

“Your average school building that you’re going to walk into today is not a commercial facility where you go to do your grocery shopping, or retail shopping, or even a lot of the office spaces that folks are used to going into every day. And even if you want to, it’s really difficult and expensive to retrofit these buildings with the controls needed,” he said.

Barkkume discovered guidance for clean air even from the CDC has fallen short.

“From the beginning and up until today, the CDC does not recognize full aerosol transmission of the virus and this trickles down to the state level and it informs the requirements the Department of Education places on school districts and it changes the way they do their planning,” he said.

He is now working with teachers unions to raise a red flag about air quality in schools. He believes aerosol droplets can escape even when a person’s wearing a mask. And Barkkume says the state has no measurements to prove a school’s met the required clean air standards.

There’s been a big focus on filters lately, with some districts investing in MERV filters. But Barkkume says that’s less important than ventilation. And it all goes out the window when schools are overcrowded, says Heather Sorge, campaign organizer for Healthy Schools Now.

“These are issues that really needed to be addressed long before COVID-19, but now they’ve been highlighted and exacerbated by the virus. And things like poor ventilation can actually make the virus spread faster,” said Sorge.

And like most things, it comes down to money and who’s going to pay to upgrade the systems.

“If you want the economy back, you need kids back in school. Most parents can’t stay home every day to oversee distance learning. So spending the money on improving ventilation systems is sort of a key to getting kids back in school. And it’s also a long-term investment that will pay off over time, as opposed to the plastic partitions or room dividers which we won’t need a few months, hopefully,” said Theresa Luhm, attorney and managing director for the Education Law Center.

She’d like to see the governor use some of the $9.9 billion in bond authorization to make the upgrades or there will be no stopping the spread in some of state’s classrooms.