‘School ventilation action teams’ to check NYC classrooms before start of school

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza tour New Bridges Elementary in Brooklyn on Aug. 19, 2020 to observe the school’s PPE delivery and reopening preparations. (Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

New York City has launched “school ventilation action teams” to inspect HVAC systems, windows and fans in all public schools to make sure that buildings are safe to reopen by the start of the school year on Sept. 10, officials announced Tuesday.

Department of Education officials will begin posting results online later this week and expect to have all results posted by Sept. 4. Inspections will stop on Sept. 1, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio. 

All 100 “action team” consist of two to four “independent ventilation experts” and licensed engineers contracted by the School Construction Authority, to walk through every room “where learning will happen,” bathrooms and public assembly spaces, according to Department of Design and Construction Commissioner Lorraine Grillo. 

Proper air-flow is an important part of mitigating the spread of COVID-19 in school buildings as more evidence suggests that the virus can circulate in the air in indoor spaces. The effort is meant to ensure that ventilation systems can properly push out potentially virus-filled air and replace it with filtered fresh air. 

The “multi-agency” effort will involve the Department of Education, the New York City Fire Department, the Department of Buildings and the Department of Health. 

Earlier this month, the DOE announced that all school buildings had been surveyed by the Division of School Facilities staff to assess the state of building ventilation and were currently performing repairs in conjunction with the SCA.

Repairs included fixing windows, repairing HVAC systems and replacing air filters in buildings with central HVAC systems from MERV 8 to MERV 13. In schools without HVAC systems, windows were being repaired to increase air flow or to allow for any at all.

But the precision and depth of the inspections have come into question from parents, teachers and some union leaders. 

As a result, The United Teachers Federation is conducting its own inspection of school ventilation systems to double-check the work of the DOE and SCA. The teachers’ union previously threatened to strike before the start of the school year if it didn’t deem the schools safe to return.

The DOE will take all rooms found where repairs are needed “offline” until repairs are made, said Carranza. 

The announcement comes 16 days before students are scheduled to go back into schools for the fall’s blended learning model in-person classes. When asked by reporters why the city decided to wait until Aug.25 to deploy inspection teams de Blasio defended his choice by arguing that “a lot of the work” to get schools ready has already been completed. 

“Now is exactly the time to go in and confirm that everything is ready,” de Blasio told reporters. “If anything needs last minute adjustments it will get it, if anything isn’t ready and needs to be held back it will be.” 

The city is currently working “very closely” with engineers to make sure that school HVAC systems are up in running by the time that the colder months hit the city, said Grillo, since classrooms won’t be able to depend on just open windows to keep fresh air circulating.

“We have a block of time now to make those changes and to make those systems better,” she said.