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NYC educators say air in schools won’t keep them safe from coronavirus, file state complaint

Educators filed a state complaint saying the ventilation in their schools won’t keep them safe from the coronavirus. Above, a fan and partially open window are supposed to help circulate the air in a classroom at Newtown High School in Queens.
Amanda Vender/Courtesy photo

In a complaint filed this week, a group of New York City teachers and other school staffers charged that their workplaces are unsafe and that more rigorous testing of campus ventilation systems is necessary during the coronavirus pandemic.

Most of the 46 school workers who signed onto the complaint, filed Monday with the state labor department, remain anonymous. They call for enhanced inspections and for the city to conduct any necessary repairs.

Although the complaint covers only the nine different campuses where the educators work, they claim the problem is pervasive systemwide because the city has not rigorously checked campus ventilation systems.

A spokesman for the education department said that repairs have already been completed in all but 100 school spaces, out of 2,800 that were identified in need of fixes.

“A working ventilation system is only one part of our layered approach to safety,” said spokesman Nathaniel Styer.

Coronavirus can spread through the air, making ventilation a key line of defense against its spread — in addition to social distancing measures, face coverings, and widespread testing and tracing. City leaders faced skepticism from families and teachers over the summer about whether the airflow in classrooms is up to par, and a blitz of inspections have done little to smooth over concerns.

Representing the educators are the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit organization known as PEER, which represents whistleblowers who are public employees, and the Environmental Justice Initiative, a nonprofit led by attorney Joel Kupferman. Both organizations previously worked on air quality issues after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“We want them to test the school buildings correctly,” said Kyla Bennett, science policy advisor at PEER. “I have no level of comfort with the inspections they’ve already done.”

City agencies hustled this summer to inspect the airflow in every New York City public school classroom and deemed the vast majority safe to open. However, those inspections seem to rely on observations about whether windows can open and if the mechanical components of ventilation systems are functioning.

The complaint says that’s not enough.

“It is abundantly clear that the mere ability of air being able to flow in and out of a room or building does not render that room or building safe. Rather, sufficient airflow and high efficiency filters are necessary to reduce the risk of virus transmission,” the filing reads.

Therefore, the department of education, or DOE, should be measuring the amount of air coming in and out of rooms, as well as the air quality, the complaint says noting: “Unfortunately, the DOE’s statements on what makes a building safe for occupancy is not based on science or current knowledge of the spread of,” COVID-19.

Parents and educators in August were alarmed by photos posted to social media showing ventilation systems were being checked with squares of toilet paper clipped to a pole. While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that method can be effective, the center’s guidance says mechanical readings are preferred.

The complaint also raises questions about the accuracy of the city’s inspection records, noting that one school had no information about the ventilation in any bathrooms, hallways, or the cafeteria. At another school, the report notes that 67 rooms had windows that open and 29 rooms did not. But those numbers were swapped in an updated report.

“The flaws are so obvious,” Kupferman said.

The campuses named in the complaint are Newtown High School in Queens, Grace Hoadley Dodge Campus in the Bronx, Urban Assembly for Green Careers in Manhattan, the Murry Bergtraum Campus in Manhattan, Louis Armstrong Middle School in Queens, the Flushing International High School in Queens, the Earth School in Manhattan, Landmark High School in Manhattan, and Liberty High School Academy for Newcomers in Manhattan.

Kupferman added that the educators still would like to see school buildings opened, but “it should be done methodically, and done the right way.”

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