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Report questions BPS building air quality

Finds many buildings lack PPE supplies, proper ventilation

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Report questions BPS building air quality
The windows at Boston Latin Academy pivot open from the bottom, rendering the box fans the district provided useless. BANNER PHOTO

With high-needs students scheduled to return in-person to classes on Oct. 5, the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) released a report detailing deficiencies in Boston Public Schools buildings they say will endanger the health and safety of students and staff.

The report, authored by the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH), identified problems with windows and fans, ventilation and air filtration systems, indoor air quality inspection data and cleaning protocols.

The MassCOSH Healthy Schools Taskforce inspected six BPS buildings, examining windows, HVAC systems, bathrooms and other school facilities accompanied by school leaders, nurses, custodians, parents and high school students. At the time of the inspections, between Sept. 14 and Sept. 18, the group found key safety measures were lacking in school buildings, including window fans, medical grade PPE equipment for nurses, soap in bathrooms and hand sanitizer.

While BPS officials have since delivered fans and extension cords to many schools, some school staff have reported instances of fans not fitting in windows that swing open from the bottom, as well as extension cords that aren’t long enough to reach outlets.

At Boston Latin Academy, for example, school staff received 150 box window fans, yet the building’s windows hinge in from the bottom and cannot accommodate such fans.

At the Shaw Elementary school, windows at the entry level open only four inches and would not accommodate fans. Bathrooms in that building’s first floor have no windows.

At the Snowden International School, staff flagged the nurse’s office and the designated medical isolation room as having inadequate ventilation.

The MassCOSH report calls on the district to conduct tests of ventilation in classrooms in the 93 BPS schools that don’t have HVAC systems in order to assess whether they can be adequately ventilated with a window and a fan. In absence of such testing, the group recommends use of portable air cleaners with HEPA filters.

A BPS spokesman said the district has now delivered 6,000 fans and extension cords to maximize flow of outdoor air. The district has replaced air filters in all of the buildings with HVAC systems, and mechanical ventilation systems will run at maximum capacity.

“The health, safety, and wellbeing of our students and staff remain our top priority,” reads a statement sent by the spokesman. “We have been working all summer to prepare our buildings for the return of teachers, staff, and students.”

By last week, the BPS spokesman said, 78 of the district’s 125 schools had been tested for indoor air quality.

During a press briefing last week, Mayor Martin Walsh said he was confident in the district’s preparations for the return of students.

“I feel right now in Boston, that our buildings are in a good place to reopen school next week on a limited basis,” he told reporters.

But BTU President Jessica Tang said she fears the district is running out of time for testing air quality and other building needs, with high-needs students due to return to buildings next week.

“Some schools will have half their students coming back in,” she said. “That’s not tenable in terms of building capacity.”

Schools such as the Boston International Newcomers Academy and the Margarita Muñiz Academy, both of which have high numbers of English Language Learners, will be among the first to welcome students back Oct. 5. By mid-November, all students are scheduled to return on a part-time basis. The district will allow families to continue remote-only learning, should they choose to.

Tang also said the district’s insistence on teachers delivering lessons to in-person and remote students simultaneously is untenable and dangerous for teachers.

“We should be decreasing the number of people in buildings, not increasing them unnecessarily.”

BTU members are advocating for a division between in-person teachers and those teaching remotely. This would allow teachers who are at high risk of suffering complications from a coronavirus infection to continue working. Absent such an arrangement, high-risk teachers may have to take leave, forcing the district to scramble for substitutes in the days before in-class instruction begins.

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