‘Can we be safe?’ Teachers worry the HVAC system at their Manhattan school poses dangers

Teachers at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights dug into building inspection reports that showed parts of the ventilation system are deficient. (InsideSchools)

Cold in the winter and hot in the summer — the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system at M.S. 324 hasn’t worked properly for years.

About a dozen of the building’s exhaust fans — which are supposed to pull air out of the school — are defective, according to a 2019 building inspection report. The condition of the fans was described as “between fair and poor.” Some of the system’s dampers, flaps in the ducts that close to prevent smoke from spreading in case of a fire, are also defective.

As New York City hurtles towards reopening school buildings, teachers of the Upper Manhattan school are terrified that the HVAC system is a threat to the health of students and staff, despite reassurances from the education department that the building is safe. 

“Our teachers and kids,” said Shawn Hindes, who teaches there, “they don’t deserve to get sick.”

Maintaining fresh airflow has emerged as a critical piece of reducing the risks of spreading COVID-19 when schools buildings are scheduled to reopen this September. Ventilation systems need to pull stale, potentially virus-laden air out of buildings, and properly filter the fresh air flowing in. 

If not, said Angelique Corthals, a professor of forensic and biomedical science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, “You’re redistributing the virus around the room.”

The education department has promised to survey and repair ventilation systems across the system’s 1,800 schools. Yet officials have released scarce details about the scope of its analysis or even a timeline for getting work completed. 

M.S. 324 was built in 1994 and shares a building with another middle school, a program for students with severe disabilities, and a charter school. In all, the building has about 1,400 students.

Located in the neighborhood of Washington Heights, M.S. 324 caters to a community of largely Dominican immigrants, with many students who are learning English as a new language. It’s not uncommon for students to return to visit their teachers even after they’ve graduated.

“We’re not saying that we don’t want to go back to school. I think all of us would rather be in a building with kids… but nobody can give us assurances,” said Sarah Kuhner, a special education teacher who has worked at M.S. 324 for a decade. “Can we be safe?”

In response to questions from Chalkbeat, an education department spokesman said the building has been inspected and deemed safe. The only deficiency noted was that the “cooling element” of the system does not work in some rooms. 

“The system overall is providing the necessary outside air ventilation to all rooms. The air ventilation in this building is safe for the return of students and staff,” wrote spokesman Nathaniel Styer. 

He did not immediately respond to questions about whether any repairs have been made since the building’s last inspection report. 

Teachers started to wonder about the school’s air quality as evidence mounted through the spring and summer that the virus could spread through the air. They assembled their own safety committee in July, and were horrified when they dug up the building’s inspection reports. The committee shared the reports with three different building engineers and consultants. All three raised concerns about the ventilation.

Lisa Fitzgerald O’Connor, a science teacher at the school for about a dozen years, said the cooling and ventilation system is so unreliable that classrooms were finally outfitted with window air conditioning units. While many health experts have said it’s important to keep windows open for fresh air to circulate, O’Connor said the windows in her lab only open about six inches from the bottom. The education department said repairs are being conducted on windows “to allow safe airflow,” but O’Connor has not heard whether that includes her classroom.

In a plan submitted to the state, the education department said it has already completed its survey of air cooling, heating, and ventilating systems, and has checked whether classroom windows can be opened. But when asked for inspection records, the education department did not provide any. 

The city’s plan to the state also notes that the School Construction Authority is working to “complete repairs and ensure air circulation,” and is upgrading air filters so they can catch particles as small as the COVID-19 virus. The department did not respond to a request for details about the projected schedule or budget for the repairs. 

In raising growing alarm over the city’s plans to return to classes, the United Federation of Teachers has increasingly focused attention on ventilation. The union recently dispatched its own team to inspect buildings where schools have raised red flags, The 74 reported.  

In a petition launched this week, the union demanded, among other things, proof that the education department is following through on all of the precautions it has promised. Almost 50,000 supporters signed in just one day.  

Teachers at M.S. 324 said they’d like to know how the education department concluded their building is safe and whether any repairs have been made. Without transparency into the education department’s process and budget, and with so few details, the staff has nothing but the department’s assurances.

O’Connor dug up emails stretching back to 2015 that state the system was broken, and recalled giant cranes rumbling up to the building to try to fix it — on two different occasions. 

“It’s just hard for me to believe that a building with such a defective system for so many years can somehow, in a matter of months, be magically deemed safe,” O’Connor said.

For Hindes, it boils down to an issue of equity. 

Coronavirus has fallen disproportionately hard on the city’s poor communities and people of color. Virtually all of the students at M.S. 234 are Black or Latino, and come from low-income families. In the ZIP code the school calls home, the coronavirus infection rate is 6% higher than the city average. The death rate is 26% higher, according to data compiled by ProPublica.  

“It’s insane,” said Hindes. “The families in our school community have been rocked with sickness and death, and to put our kids now into this scenario is unacceptable.” 

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