Is it possible to make school ventilation safe enough to open by September?

Ventilation problems by area of school building

This story originally appeared on The Notebook.


One of the biggest challenges facing the Philadelphia School District as it struggles with how to start the 2020 school year is concern over whether the city’s aging buildings are properly ventilated.

Opinions differ on how much ventilation improvement may be needed to protect students and staff from COVID-19. But a look at District data shows that the scale of the challenge will be significant.

According to a Notebook analysis of more than 200 Facilities Condition Assessments from 2017, at least 80% of Philadelphia public schools had ventilation systems that weren’t up to current codes. The reports, one for every District school, catalog a parade of concerns citywide, including problems with fans, ducts and schoolwide systems, with replacement costs estimated at more than $600 million.

And while city health officials say that ventilation concerns can be allayed if students and staff consistently follow proper protocols — including wearing masks and social distancing — experts worldwide agree that poorly ventilated indoor air is one of the major risk factors for COVID-19 transmission.

Under the District’s current “hybrid” reopening plan, while some students would attend an all-virtual “Digital Academy,” others would enter school buildings twice a week, in Monday/Wednesday and Tuesday/Thursday “cohorts.” Each teacher would be in the building for all four days.

Teachers, principals and parents savaged that plan at Thursday’s Board of Education meeting, and the need for better airflow was one of their top concerns. They are not alone: the latest reopening advice from the Pennsylvania Department of Education tells districts to “ensure ventilation systems operate properly.” Superintendent William Hite has long said that such issues pose a major potential risk to students and staff, and on Thursday he said: “Make no mistake, we are focusing on ventilation, and where we don’t have good ventilation, we will take those [rooms] off line.”

The Notebook’s analysis suggests that the need could be great. According to the 2017 assessments, mitigating ventilation issues in schools might not be as simple as sectioning off a few rooms. The vast majority of the District’s public schools face serious concerns regarding ventilation — some only in certain areas, but others run into problems throughout the building.

The average life expectancy for commercial Heating, Ventilation and Cooling (HVAC) units is 15 to 20 years. The average age of public school buildings in Philadelphia is 75 years. At dozens of schools in the District, unit ventilators throughout the building have never been replaced, putting them well beyond their service life, the reports said.

Of the 204 school buildings in the District for which reports were accessible, 55 were flagged for inadequate ventilation in the gymnasium, 51 for cafeterias, 42 for auditoriums, 26 for administrative offices, 44 for classrooms, and 92 for unit ventilators throughout the building, many of which are in classrooms. In total, 171 schools reported some kind of ventilation problem. Only 33 schools reported no ventilation issues.

It is yet another example of how the pandemic has exposed the basic inequities in American education. The Board of Education and administration are engaged in a #fundourschools campaign for more state and federal help.

The individual school reports are a catalog of woes, some going back generations:

“There is no recirculation of building air,” reads the report from Bregy Elementary.

“The original unit ventilators have been in service for more than 50 years,” says the report from Greenberg Elementary. “They are well beyond their anticipated service life and should be scheduled for replacement.”

“The school has no mechanical ventilation,” the Dobson Elementary report says.

At Central High School, there’s another problem: “three [house fans] are abandoned in accordance with the District directives due to asbestos and contamination.”

Certain common areas will likely be avoided in accordance with the District’s hybrid reopening plan — students are supposed to eat in classrooms, not cafeterias, to uphold social distancing guidelines — but it’s unclear how students and staff could work in buildings where most classrooms are compromised. If all classrooms with ventilation issues need to be taken out of consideration for in-person learning, 20 to 40 percent of buildings could be unusable.

Such problems are no surprise — the District has a $4.5 billion capital backlog, much of which involves windows and HVAC systems. To prepare for September, District officials said they are working hard on upgrades, and sent the Notebook a document Monday evening listing $138 million in renovations to 18 school buildings, including repairs to ventilation systems.

The District document did not specify when the repairs were made. According to a schedule from a 2019 Capital Projects list, just three of the 18 are already complete, but it is unclear when that list was last updated.

Of those 18 schools, 14 were flagged in the 2017 facilities reports for significant problems with HVAC systems; the other four were not. Strawberry Mansion and Munoz Marin, for example, reported no noteworthy ventilation issues in 2017. Pratt Elementary was on the list provided by the District, but not in the 2017 report, because the school closed its doors in 2014. Also, on the list was Wister, but it was not included in the Notebook’s analysis, because it is now a charter school.

Union officials have been frank about their concerns with air quality.

“I can’t see how schools can be safe” by Sept. 2, when the District plans to reopen school buildings, said Jerry Roseman, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Health and Welfare Fund director of environmental science, in an interview.  The single biggest issue he cited: ventilation.

Principals are likewise concerned. With COVID-19 cases on the rise in many regions of the country, the union representing District administrators opposes a return to in-person learning for at least the first two months of the year. Throughout Thursday’s marathon meeting, speakers expressed concern that school buildings could not be adequately cleaned and ventilated.

Robin Cooper, president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators (CASA), said that “all independent experts…have concluded that ventilation system improvement is a key mitigation strategy” for virus spread.

“Perilous issues abound regarding ventilation,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. “Fresh air flow is critical.”

The astronomical cost of fixing commercial HVAC systems presents another problem. Dozens of the reports recommended replacing the existing (as of 2017) HVAC systems in schools with more modern units. Based on estimates included in the 2017 facilities reports, the cost of repairing or replacing current ventilation equipment in all Philadelphia public schools could run north of $600 million.

By comparison, Hite said the District’s hybrid reopening plan is expected to cost between $60 and $80 million for the 2020-2021 academic year. Hite has not offered specific details about how those funds would be spent, but on Thursday he did not indicate that any major HVAC projects would be a priority.

And officials have consistently stressed that they are working under financial pressure that could get worse. Due to plunging taxation revenue from the effects of coronavirus-related closures, the District is already expected to have a budget shortfall by fiscal year 2025 of more than $800 million, and the future of any further federal stimulus is unclear.

Asked whether it would be feasible time-wise and financially to repair hundreds of HVAC systems before the start of the school year, Alicia Prince, the District’s manager of facilities, said a team of experts contracted by the District is hard at work on that very issue. They’re primarily replacing filters and adjusting windows so they can open more easily.

At the end of that process, the HVAC professionals will measure airflow to ensure every room is meeting the appropriate industry standards for CFM, or cubic feet per minute of airflow.

“If we have rooms that we feel like we cannot increase air circulation in … with windows being open, with doors being open … we will absolutely be cutting those rooms off,” Prince said.

PFT’s Jordan reiterated in a statement that the union will insist on constant measurement of airflow, saying that simply adding fans or air filters without addressing underlying issues is not sufficient.

“Proper ventilation based on scientific metrics including fresh air flow (cubic feet per minute per person of fresh air) is an absolutely critical component of any virus mitigation strategy,” he said in a statement.

Quick fixes will not do, he said. “This does not mean the addition of fans or air filters without addressing underlying issues of poor air circulation. Without those thresholds being met — along with the other critical criteria such as virus tracking, contact tracing, social distancing, and PPE — reopening will be unsafe,” said Jordan. “It’s not a one or the other metric.”

Roseman adds that focusing on windows won’t solve the complex problem of ventilation: “Even if they were all fixed, you still wouldn’t get enough air.”

Likewise, the countless window-unit air conditioners that pop out of District windows do little to clean air to COVID-safe standards, he said. “Those are fans. That’s all they are. They’re blowing air around,” Roseman said.“They’re not neutral systems – they’re dangerous systems.”

Roseman’s analysis is consistent with that of the 2017 FCA reports, which claim that air circulation achieved by opening windows and doors alone isn’t up to “current codes.”

“Currently ventilation for the building is provided by opening windows, which does not meet current codes for outdoor air ventilation,” the assessment for Jenks Academy Arts and Sciences says. Dozens of other reports repeat the exact same phrase.

Prince did not say whether or not the HVAC experts would outright replace outdated air circulation systems, and it remains unclear how the District could fix a significant number of ventilation issues in school buildings before the academic year begins, especially given the seismic cost of repairs and the District’s looming budget shortfall.

Grasping for Solutions

Not everyone in the health and scientific community agrees with Thursday’s testimony that schools cannot safely reopen under a hybrid model. Some doctors have recommended that schools open for face-to-face instruction, citing concerns that children could fall behind academically if they must rely solely on virtual instruction.

One staunch defender of the hybrid model is city Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley. He raised eyebrows when he downplayed the importance of good ventilation in schools at Thursday’s school board meeting, saying “the ventilation system is not going to make much of a difference in transmission.” While he said it “makes sense” to maximize good ventilation, he wouldn’t alter the current District plan based on those concerns, describing the wearing of masks and social distancing as more important.

Earlier that same day, Farley appeared to contradict himself by suggesting that ventilation was a noteworthy issue when it came to indoor dining. He pointed out that in restaurants, people are not wearing masks.

“It’s unsafe because people are indoors where there’s less ventilation,” Farley said at a Thursday press conference.

Monday morning, Farley’s spokesperson sent an email quoting Farley, who said that his first statement holds true when everyone follows best practice.

“In schools, when students and staff are properly distanced and wearing masks, the risk of spread of the virus is very low, and ventilation is relatively less important,” Farley said. “In situations like restaurant dining, where it is difficult to maintain distance and impossible to wear masks, ventilation becomes more important.”

Farley said the context of the two comments also differed. “The question for schools was about the importance of different heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, and the question for restaurants was about the risk indoors versus outdoors,” he said. “The additional ventilation offered by one HVAC system offers versus another is much less than the additional ventilation that occurs from being outdoors versus indoors.”

Told of Farley’s remarks, teachers and administrators quickly noted that classrooms will be dining areas; due to social distancing demands, cafeterias will be closed and students will be expected to eat in classrooms — sometimes twice daily — as well as take “mask breaks.” Cooper, of CASA, noted that the District’s physical distancing guidelines are so vague that “it is difficult to understand how different it would be than restaurants, in practice.”

Many experts in infectious diseases have also said maximizing air flow is key to preventing the spread of respiratory illnesses.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control wrote: “Poor ventilation in confined indoor spaces is associated with increased transmission of respiratory infections. There have been numerous COVID transmission events associated with closed spaces including some from presymptomatic cases.”

Similarly, the EPA recommends precautions including “increasing ventilation with outdoor air and air filtration.”

What the District’s next plan for September will include is unclear. Officials are now rethinking the hybrid reopening plan after last week’s school board meeting where more than 100 parents, teachers, students and administrators pummeled it with criticism. Rather than voting “yes” or “no,” Thursday, the board decided to recess the meeting and give Superintendent Hite one week to revise the plan to address the avalanche of complaints; the board will reconvene to vote on the revised plan this Thursday.

But whatever the next board meeting brings, when it comes to air quality, the PFT’s Roseman says the District isn’t starting from a good position: “Central ventilation is a very limited District capability.” Instead what’s common is a mix of fans, window AC units, and open-able windows, all of which fall short of the circulation power needed to replace droplet-filled air with clean air.

Roseman said social distancing isn’t enough if ventilation is inadequate, and that schools can’t plan for social distancing unless they know where the air is clean and where it isn’t. Personal Protective Equipment isn’t enough either, he said — it’s “a lower form of protection than engineering.”

Given significant limitations when it comes to ventilation, Roseman said, the best solution is to aim for a range of tactics — using PPE and social distancing guidelines in the best ventilated rooms available. The process should be: first, experts must figure out which rooms can be ventilated in which buildings, then they must assess how many students those rooms can safely hold, and then schedule accordingly.

That approach could make schools somewhat safe by January, Roseman said, but it’s too late for September.

“They don’t have the money, they don’t have the systems, and they don’t have the people,” Roseman said. “I think they’re kind of wasting time.”

Bill Hangley Jr. and Dale Mezzacappa contributed reporting.

Neena Hagen, a Notebook intern, attends the University of Pittsburgh and graduated from Masterman High School in 2017. Follow her on Twitter @neena_hagen..

NOTE: Here is the spreadsheet with the 2017 findings on ventilation for every public school in the District. Each entry contains the FCI percentage, which measures the condition of the building as a whole (the higher the FCI percentage, the higher the need to replace certain systems); the year the building was built (according to the FCA report); the estimated cost to repair or replace the HVAC system, whichever is cheaper; and an excerpt from the report that enumerates the school’s ventilation issues.

Schools with no ventilation issues are marked with the phrase, “nothing noteworthy.” For 11 schools on the website, there was no report available — marked with the phrase, “page not found.”

The full list of Facilities Condition Assessments for every public and charter school in Philadelphia is available on the District website HERE.

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