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

More than 1,500 New York City public school classrooms still need work to make their ventilation safe enough for students to return amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, according to data analyzed by WNYC/Gothamist. Another 104 classrooms have been indefinitely taken out of commission.

The city’s Department of Education (DOE) has pledged to complete these repairs before school starts, and hundreds of classrooms have been upgraded over the past year. Nevertheless, the size 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 remote option this term.

WNYC/Gothamist has compiled the individual ventilation surveys collected by the DOE for its school buildings. Based on this data—now available below as an interactive map—the city is reporting 97% of its classrooms’ ventilation systems are working as designed, thanks to a speedy audit, two summers of repairs and the acquisition of air filters.

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

“I wouldn’t rely on, ‘They told us it was working,’” said 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 proof that it was checked and how it was checked.”

The DOE said a custodial engineer performs a daily walkthrough in each school building, so its ventilation tracker is updated whenever a room’s status changes. The map below will update every Wednesday over the coming weeks, so parents can track these maintenance projects to completion.

The data are based only on built-in ventilation, like HVAC systems and windows. They don’t account for the air purifiers placed in each classroom or particle-trapping “MERV-13” filters added to window A/C units.

But the latter is only helpful if a room has air conditioning. Four years ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged all classrooms would have access to A/C by 2022, but the city’s latest report card said about 12,000 classrooms still lack air conditioners as of this January. Some experts have also raised concerns about the effectiveness of the Intellipure-brand air purifiers purchased by the DOE, pointing out that they lack the high-efficiency HEPA filters recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Up In The Air

An open question is whether the 1,517 classrooms currently being serviced will be used for instruction when school starts on September 13th. The Department of Education’s website states that classrooms under repair won’t be cleared for occupancy until these fixes or remediation are finished.

When asked for direct clarification that classrooms labeled “repairs in progress” will not be used on the first day of school, an education department spokesperson didn’t confirm but pledged all rooms would be ready in time. The city said it is also planning to purchase larger purifiers and install window-based exhaust fans for cafeterias.

“The DOE is prioritizing all ventilation repairs within their jurisdiction. Some repairs are capital in nature and under the supervision of the SCA [School Construction Authority],” the spokesperson said via an emailed response to WNYC/Gothamist. “Any room in use will have operational ventilation through natural or mechanical means, or a combination of both, and supplemented by air purifiers.”

Last week, Schools Chancellor Meisha Porter claimed her department had made all the repairs.

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

A few schools, like New Bridges Elementary in Crown Heights, list every single classroom as pending repairs. Some large high school buildings, such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt High School in Mapleton and the Washington Irving Campus in Gramercy Park, have upwards of 80 classrooms apiece still in need of service.

The stakes are high. The delta variant has driven up pediatric COVID cases and hospitalizations in New York state, even before the full return to in-person schooling. Children under 12 aren’t eligible for any of the COVID vaccines, and National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins said recently that he didn’t expect this authorization before the end of the year.

Community transmission of the virus, meanwhile, remains high. Data from the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene show a rolling average of nearly 2,000 daily cases, a tally not seen since April. And unlike last year, when about 60 percent of students opted to learn online, nearly all students will be learning in person this September, except while quarantining after a COVID exposure.

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

Aging Buildings And Limited Data

Many of the city school buildings undergoing extensive repairs were built in the 1920s. Some date back even earlier. One building, home to Longwood Preparatory Academy in the Bronx, was constructed in 1905. According to the DOE’s ventilation data from August 29th, 39 of its 48 classrooms are currently being fixed.

Older buildings don’t have HVAC and may be impossible or prohibitively expensive to retrofit, explained Jordan Peccia, an environmental engineering professor at Yale University. Instead, these schools often rely on windows, which offer harder-to-monitor and less controllable airflow relative 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.

“You can get ventilation that way,” Peccia said of windows. “But you can also get not-very-good ventilation that way.”

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

This zip code has barely 40% of its residents fully vaccinated and has recorded 213 new cases per 100,000 people in the last 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 the Department of Education data, all 48 classrooms in the New Bridges building are undergoing repairs.

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

The DOE’s ventilation numbers also shift as repairs are completed or as classrooms are taken out of commission, and a flurry of updates has been made in recent weeks. On August 17th, for example, the building that houses Brooklyn Arts and Science Elementary School reported that all 40 of its classrooms were under repair. By August 25th, all but one were marked as operational. P.S. 195 and P.S. 196 in the Bronx also underwent rapid updates in a short period of time: 32 classrooms marked “repair in progress” on August 25th were back to “operational” by August 29th.

The city also collects data on non-classrooms in schools, including cafeterias, gyms, locker rooms and offices. According to the August 29th cache of data, about 90% of all school rooms are operational, while the remainder either lack mechanical ventilation or are undergoing repairs.

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

Multiple “layers of protection” will be necessary to keep students safe against the delta variant, said Dr. William Bahnfleth, a professor of architectural engineering at Penn State University. And even then, these strategies can only mitigate children’s risk, never eliminate it.

“There’s a belief that we can make schools perfectly safe, in the sense that if we did things right, nobody would be infected,” he said. “That’s a fairly unrealistic expectation. There are going to be kids getting sick because of going to school, and we need to expect that.”

Caroline Lewis and Jessica Gould contributed to reporting.