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It’s not as simple as cracking a window.
As thousands of students and teachers return to classrooms across New Jersey this week, proper air ventilation has proven one of the most complex issues for districts reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Guidelines released by Gov. Phil Murphy emphasize as much fresh air as possible should be filtered through classrooms. But many teachers, parents and school officials worry aging ventilation systems — costly and time-consuming to replace — aren’t up to the task. Others worry about stifling late-summer heat, which has forced some districts to begin the year all-remote.
The problem is, of course, bigger than just New Jersey. A report released in June by the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates 41% of the nation’s public school districts need to update or replace HVAC systems in at least half their buildings.
With concerns across the board, the conversation around schools’ air quality is likely to persist as it’s well-accepted that constant circulation is an important tool in quelling the spread of COVID-19.
Studies have suggested the coronavirus can linger in the air for hours in poorly ventilated places, according to the World Health Organization. That’s where heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems come in. They keep air flowing through enclosed spaces and can help slow the spread of the virus, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
As recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Garden State relies on guidance from ASHRAE, a national trade group of heating, cooling and refrigeration engineers, which released its recommendations for schools and universities in May.
But HVAC systems aren’t a singular solution to keeping the virus out, said Corey Metzger, who leads school recommendations for ASHRAE’s epidemic task force. Good ventilation should act as a supplement to social distancing and wearing masks.
And achieving good air flow is not a uniform challenge.
“There is no silver bullet,” Metzger said. “Schools use hundreds if not thousands of different HVAC configuration and control strategies.”
In some cases, buildings within the same district also face their own unique hurdles.
Heat concerns at four buildings with partial air conditioning spurred the Metuchen’s school district to take the all-virtual learning route until Oct. 1, said Superintendent Vincent Caputo.
“Since the average daily temperature is 10 to 12 degrees lower in October compared to September, we know it will be much easier for teachers and students to teach and learn while wearing masks all the time,” he said in an email to NJ Advance Media.
Once students return, Metuchen will operate on alternate-week schedule of full days, Caputo said. Teachers will report to the buildings Sept. 16, and some special education students and staff will return Thursday.
To prepare for the return of students, the district installed a new building management system, a software that measures air flow and room temperature, which is already up and running, Caputo said.
Architects, engineers, and certified industrial hygienists also looked at ventilation across the district, and tested all unit ventilators, he said.
Time for upgrades?
Districts aren’t just being forced to take a hard look at potential upgrades, but also the costs of maintaining them, said Elisabeth Ginsburg, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools.
“Some districts are more fortunate than others and have newer HVAC systems, but maintenance is still essential to the functioning of even the best of equipment,” she stressed.
Neely Hackett, superintendent of Willingboro schools, said the district has asked to go all-remote due to inadequate ventilation and lack of air conditioning, along with a half-dozen other concerns.
“Many of our schools have only partial air conditioning, making the early months of the school year an additional challenge,” Hackett said at Murphy’s coronavirus press briefing earlier this month.
The district hopes to keep all buildings closed through at least the end of the first marking period in November, when heat will be less of an issue.
In Burlington County, the nine schools in the 4,800-student Pemberton Township district are fortunate to have HVAC service in every room, according to interim Superintendent Paul Spaventa.
Each of those systems is currently being inspected, he added, before students return for in-person instruction on a hybrid basis beginning Oct. 13.
But some Pemberton residents are concerned the filters in those systems won’t effectively pull the coronavirus out of the air, Spaventa said.
Spaventa said the district’s HVAC systems are designed to use air filters that are not as highly rated as the ones AHSRAE recommends to clear the air respiratory droplets that potentially carry the virus.
Using the higher rated filters puts more strain on the HVAC systems, Spaventa said, and could lead to those systems breaking down — an even larger headache for the district in the middle of the school year.
ASHRAE acknowledges in its recommendations that some HVAC systems just aren’t designed to handle the higher rated filters.
“Of course, the ultimate choice needs to take the capabilities of the HVAC systems into consideration,” ASHRAE writes on its website.
To handle this, Spaventa said Pemberton Township schools will stick with the regular filters but will change them monthly, rather than using the typical quarterly cycle. Daily disinfectant misting in classrooms after school will help keep the air systems clean, he said.
“That misting will go through the heaters, go through the filters and kill the viruses in the filters,” Spaventa said. “That’s what we’re being told.”
Understanding the full scope of New Jersey schools’ HVAC problems is nearly impossible, as there is no single list or database to track such issues.
“The [New Jersey] Department of Education wouldn’t survey or inspect HVAC systems in the state’s roughly 2,500 schools,” said DOE spokesman Michael Yaple in late August. “The HVAC needs in individual school buildings are addressed at the local level, by the local school district.”
Yaple did not say how many schools had cited ventilation problems as a cause to begin the year all-remote, noting the DOE currently does not keep such a log.
“We will have better information moving forward,” Yaple said.
In July, the New Jersey-based Education Law Center blasted Murphy’s reopening guidelines as ignorant of the condition of New Jersey’s school buildings. The ELC warned of logistical and fiscal challenges for many districts to perform the maintenance required to keep HVAC systems working properly.
“In issuing these directives, the Road Back completely disregards the reality of the conditions in many school buildings,” the group said in a statement at the time.
The ELC focuses its concerns on the 31 school districts in the state whose construction and renovation is overseen by the New Jersey School Development Authority. These districts — formerly known as Abbott Districts — are dotted in low-income communities across the state, from Bridgeton to Newark and Plainfield to Asbury Park.
The ELC alleges Murphy’s administration “ignores striking data,” including the fact that SDA districts have over seven million square feet in building stock — equivalent to about 70 average-sized school buildings — that are nearly a century old and “most likely in need of upgrades and repair.”
Trenton is one of those 31 districts. The Capital City’s public schools plan to start the year with all-remote learning, with the goal of returning to the classroom in some capacity as conditions become safer.
In its reopening plan, Trenton Public Schools specifically cites ventilation concerns as a factor in keeping kids home. Some of the city’s schools, according to the plan, rely on window A/C units or just open windows as the primary source of fresh air.
Neither is an ideal situation during the coronavirus; the district warns filters in window units may be ineffective, and open windows can be uncomfortable depending on the weather.
“Due to the age of many of the district buildings, with 12 of the 22 school buildings being 50 or more years old, introducing fresh air into instructional spaces is limited,” the Trenton plan reads.
Trenton’s plan targets Jan. 4, 2021 to start bringing children back into the classroom, a date that the district hopes affords enough time to address ventilation problems and other issues.
Some school districts are now being rewarded for making HVAC a priority in recent years.
In Hazlet, for example, state-of-the-art cooling and ventilation is allowing the 2,800-student district to bring students back with a hybrid schedule.
But installing a new HVAC system, or upgrading an old one, can be a wildly expensive project. Hazlet relied on a $43 million bond — passed in a 2016 referendum — to fund its improvements. Metzger estimated that HVAC installation costs between $30 and $50 per square foot for each building.
“There’s a lot of districts that don’t have that in their budget,” Metzger said, adding a full retrofit or a replacement of systems would take at least one year.
State aid for building renovations has historically lacked for school districts, said Ginsburg, of the Garden State Coalition of Schools.
Finding the money for such a major expenditure in the midst of the economy’s downward spiral will prove difficult. As of August, none of the 100 districts in the Garden State Coalition were planning major HVAC renovations.
“If you’re a school district, you’re looking at the money in your capital reserve fund and thinking to air condition some of your space, all of your space, the age of different buildings, where you want to put in a revamp. But remember, this doesn’t happen overnight,” she added.
Murphy’s administration did not comment on whether any of the $9.9 billion in emergency spending the state is authorized to borrow would go to revamping schools’ HVAC systems. A spokeswoman for Murphy’s office said the funds could include “some air filtration costs.”
Funding for public schools will be kept flat at $8.7 billion, Murphy announced in his Aug. 25 budget proposal, but as much as two-thirds of the state’s school districts could receive more aid due to the continued recalibration of the school funding formula.
And during an event at Somerville High School on Aug. 26, Murphy announced another $100 million from the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund to help school districts meet health and safety protocols for reopening.
David Sciarra, executive director of the ELC, thinks some of that money should go to fixing HVAC systems in New Jersey schools.
“This should be a top priority, frankly, in terms of the way that the state responds to a safe reopening of school buildings,” Sciarra said of emergency spending for upgrades.
“The state has really got to not just issue directives, but get in there,” Sciarra said.
Michael Sol Warren may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.