Tuesday, 22 Sep 2020

Schools mull outdoor classes amid virus, ventilation worries

It has been seven years since the central air conditioning system worked at the New York City middle school where Lisa Fitzgerald O’Connor teaches. As a new school year approaches amid the coronavirus pandemic, she and her colleagues are threatening not to return unless it’s repaired.

Her classroom has a window air conditioning unit, but she fears the stagnant air will increase the chances that an infected student could spread the virus.

“Window units just aren’t going to cut it. We don’t want to stay cool, we just want the air to flow properly,” said O’Connor, a science teacher who has worked at the Patria Mirabal School in Manhattan since 2009. “We are really super stressed out about it.”

Schools around the country are facing similar problems as they plan or contemplate reopening this fall, dealing with aging air conditioning, heating and circulation systems that don’t work well or at all because maintenance and replacement were deferred due to tight budgets. Concerns about school infrastructure are adding momentum to plans in some districts, even in colder climates, to take classes outdoors for the sake of student and teacher health.

24 PHOTOSBack to school around the worldSee GalleryBack to school around the worldBANGKOK, THAILAND – AUGUST 10:Thai kindergarteners wear face masks as they play in screened in play areas used for social distancing at the Wat Khlong Toey School on August 10, 2020 in Bangkok, Thailand. In the beginning of July The Wat Khlong Toey School reopened its doors to its approximately 250 students following the relaxation of lockdown measures during the COVID-19 pandemic. When the school was forced to shutter its doors in mid March due to Thailand’s emergency decree and lockdown, the administration and teachers prepared measures to ensure a safe reopening. By installing sinks and soap dispensers outside of each classroom, creating social distancing screens in classrooms and lunch areas and installing hand sanitizer and temperature scanners at the entry the Wat Khlong Toey school has been open for a month and has had zero cases of COVID-19. Although Thailand is now allowing schools throughout the country to further relax safety measures, the Wat Khlong Toey school has chosen to continue strict social distancing to ensure the safety of their students and teachers. (Photo by Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images)BRASILIA, BRAZIL – AUGUST 06: A student has her body temperature measured before classes during first day back to school amidst the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic at the Arvense School on August 06, 2020 in Brasilia. The school has taken measures to prevent Covid-19 such as reducing students per class, intensifying the cleaning, and disinfection booths. The government of the Federal District has already authorized the resumption of classes in private schools, but in public schools they are expected to reopen at the end of August. Brazil has over 2.912,000 confirmed positive cases of Coronavirus and has over 98,493 deaths. (Photo by Andressa Anholete/Getty Images)NEW YORK, UNITED STATES – 2020/08/03: A protester holds a placard that says Demand safe schools during the demonstration.Black Lives Matter, UFT United federation of teachers (union), the Democratic Socialists of America, and other groups gathered on the National Day of Resistance to protest against reopening of schools as well as police-free schools. (Photo by Ron Adar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)Robesonia, PA – August 8: Volunteer Joseph Cunliffe puts a bag of bread in the back of a person’s car. During a food distribution by the Olivet Boys and Girls Club, Heidelberg Family Restaurant, and Clover Dairy Farms, giving out milk and bread to people in need, at Conrad Weiser Middle School in Robesonia Saturday morning August 8, 2020. The number of people in need of food assistance has gone up as a result of the coronavirus / COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic downturn. (Photo by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)GAZA CITY, GAZA – AUGUST 08: Gazan students back to schools which have been closed since March due to the coronavirus (COVID -19) pandemic in Gaza City on August 08, 2020. (Photo by Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)Police officers and soldiers patrol a popular running track in Melbourne on August 4, 2020 after the state announced new restrictions as the city battles fresh outbreaks of the COVID-19 coronavirus. – Australia’s Victoria state imposed fresh, sweeping restrictions on August 2, 2020, including a curfew in Melbourne for the next six weeks, a ban on weddings, and schools and universities going back online in the coming days. (Photo by William WEST / AFP) (Photo by WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images)BRASILIA, BRAZIL – AUGUST 06: A school staff member sanitizes a book during first day back to school amidst the coronavirus (COVID-19)pandemic at the Arvense School on August 06, 2020 in Brasilia. The school has taken measures to prevent Covid-19 such as reducing students per class, intensifying cleaning, disinfection booths and measuring body temperature when entering and leaving students and staff. The government of the Federal District has already authorized the resumption of classes in private schools, but in public schools they are expected to reopen at the end of August. Brazil has over 2.912,000 confirmed positive cases of Coronavirus and has over 98,493 deaths. (Photo by Andressa Anholete/Getty Images)A skeleton hangs from the back window of a protester’s car as it drives in the Occupy City Hall Protest and Car Caravan hosted by Chicago Teachers Union in Chicago, Illinois, on August 3, 2020. – Teachers and activists hold car caravan all over the country on August 3, 2020 to demand adequate classroom safety measures as schools debate reopening. (Photo by KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI / AFP) (Photo by KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images)BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA, UNITED STATES – 2020/07/28: A protester holds a placard that says Keep Educators Off Of Ventilators before the Monroe County Community School Corporation school board meeting in Bloomington,Indiana is experiencing a 73-percent increase in new Coronavirus infections, but local schools were due to resume in-person classes next week on August 5th. However, while some want their kids back in school, others fear schools will be a daily super spreader event, and asked the local school board to delay classes until more data is available on the spread of the virus in the community. (Photo by Jeremy Hogan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)A girl clad in mask poses for a picture during an awareness session about COVID-19 coronavirus disease held by a local kindergarten in Gaza City on August 10, 2020, as education facilities in the Palestinian enclave re-opened for the new 2020-2021 academic year following an easing of pandemic restrictions. (Photo by Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)10 August 2020, Berlin: Sabine Reichling, teacher teaches at the Nürtingen primary school in Kreuzberg. The Berlin schools will return to normal operation after the summer holidays. Photo: Britta Pedersen/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa (Photo by Britta Pedersen/picture alliance via Getty Images)10 August 2020, Berlin: A mask is one of the teaching aids used in the lessons at the Nürtingen primary school in Kreuzberg. The Berlin schools will return to normal operation after the summer holidays. Photo: Britta Pedersen/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa (Photo by Britta Pedersen/picture alliance via Getty Images)10 August 2020, Berlin: Sandra Scheeres (SPD), Senator for Education, talks to 7-year-old Lea (r) while Nay (l) learns with her teacher at the Nürtingen primary school in Kreuzberg on the screen. The Berlin schools will return to normal operation after the summer holidays. Photo: Britta Pedersen/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa (Photo by Britta Pedersen/picture alliance via Getty Images)BERLIN, GERMANY – AUGUST 10: Children wearing protective face masks dance as they arrive for the first day of classes of the new school year at the GuthsMuths elementary school during the coronavirus pandemic on August 10, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. Classes at schools across Germany are beginning this month with face mask requirements varying by state. Coronavirus infection rates are climbing again in Germany, from an average of 400 new cases per day about two weeks ago to over 1,100 yesterday, according to the Robert Koch Institute. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)BERLIN, GERMANY – AUGUST 10: Children wearing protective face masks arrive for the first day of classes of the new school year at the GuthsMuths elementary school during the coronavirus pandemic on August 10, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. Classes at schools across Germany are beginning this month with face mask requirements varying by state. Coronavirus infection rates are climbing again in Germany, from an average of 400 new cases per day about two weeks ago to over 1,100 yesterday, according to the Robert Koch Institute. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)Students backpacks are seen hanging on coat rack outside a class room at the Carl Orff primary school in west Berlin on August 10, 2020, as school resumed after the summer break in Berlin and several other German states amid a Coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP) (Photo by TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP via Getty Images)BANGKOK, THAILAND – AUGUST 10:Thai kindergarteners wear face masks as they play in screened in play areas used for social distancing at the Wat Khlong Toey School on August 10, 2020 in Bangkok, Thailand. In the beginning of July The Wat Khlong Toey School reopened its doors to its approximately 250 students following the relaxation of lockdown measures during the COVID-19 pandemic. When the school was forced to shutter its doors in mid March due to Thailand’s emergency decree and lockdown, the administration and teachers prepared measures to ensure a safe reopening. 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(Photo by Biplov Bhuyan/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)Seniors of the Lycee Petion-ville conduct their own remedial lesson on August 6, 2020, in the Petion-ville Commune of Port-au-Prince, having been unable to benefit from distance learning during the months of confinement like students from some wealthier schools. – When Haiti’s pandemic-shuttered schools re-open for classes on August 10, the growing chasm between the country’s rich and poor students will be on painfully clear display. The wealthiest have broad campuses ready for social distancing and programs that continued online despite the virus, while some of the poorest don’t even have running water for students to scrub their hands. However, between those extremes are a small number of educators with a vision for a better system that they are trying to build with or without government help. (Photo by Pierre Michel Jean / AFP) (Photo by PIERRE MICHEL JEAN/AFP via Getty Images)Teacher Maura Silva, who created a “hug kit” using plastic covers, embraces her student Yuri Araujo Silva at Yuri’s home, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in the 77 Padre Miguel slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil July 23, 2020. REUTERS/Pilar Olivares TPX IMAGES OF THE DAYStudents wearing protective face masks amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, clap along instead of singing a song during a music class at Takanedai Daisan elementary school, which practices various methods of social distancing in order to prevent the infection, in Funabashi, east of Tokyo, Japan July 16, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon TPX IMAGES OF THE DAYDenisse Toala (3rd R, green shirt), a 16-year-old student, teaches children in an improvised school she has set up under a tree since they have been unable to attend virtual classes in the low-income neighbourhood Realidad de Dios, during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Guayaquil, Ecuador July 2, 2020. Picture taken July 2, 2020. REUTERS/Santiago ArcosChildren, who have missed their online classes due to a lack of internet facilities, maintain a safe distance as they listen to pre-recorded lessons over loudspeakers, after schools were closed following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Dandwal village in the western state of Maharashtra, India, July 28, 2020. Picture taken July 28, 2020. REUTERS/Prashant Waydande TPX IMAGES OF THE DAYA student gestures as he waits with other students of the Cultural High School Class 2020 to receive their diplomas during a graduation ceremony on their cars, to keep social distancing, as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues, in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico June 19, 2020. Picture taken June 19, 2020. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez TPX IMAGES OF THE DAYUp Next

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Nationwide, an estimated 41% of school districts need to update or replace their heating, ventilation and cooling systems in at least half their schools, according to a federal reportissued in June.

There is no evidence that the disease can spread through ventilation systems from one classroom to the next, according to Dr. Edward Nardell, a Harvard Medical School professor who specializes in airborne diseases. The danger, Nardell said, is from ineffective systems that don’t remove floating viruses and let them linger in classrooms after they are expelled in an infected person’s breath, sneeze or cough.

“Most schools are designed for comfort, not for infection control. So there is a danger that if you put 20 kids in a room, that if one of them has asymptomatic COVID and is infectious, you now have 19 more kids who are exposed,” Nardell said. Healthy children almost always recover from COVID, if they become ill at all, but they can pass the disease to teachers, parents and other adults.

Nardell believes schools should consider installing ultraviolet lights along classroom ceilings, a technology some used in the 1950s and earlier to combat measles, tuberculosis and other airborne diseases and that is still used in hospitals and homeless shelters. Viruses and bacteria are destroyed using a spectrum of UV light that is safe for humans. Manufacturers say the devices would cost $3,000 per classroom.

Some, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, say one solution to air circulation problems may be teaching classes outdoors, which was done during tuberculosis and influenza outbreaks in the early 1900s, even in cold weather. The coronavirus spreads less efficiently outdoors and students could more easily sit 6 feet (2 meters) apart.

Having classes outdoors has other benefits, said Sharon Danks, CEO of Green Schoolyards America, a Berkeley, California, nonprofit that advocates for outdoor education. Children actually are less distracted and feel better emotionally when taught outdoors, she said.

“Nature has been shown to restore the ability to pay attention,” she said.

Several schools in the Northeast have bought large event tents like those used at outdoor weddings and plan to use them to teach outside through November.

The White River Valley Middle School in Bethel, Vermont, spent $50,000 on tents and another $20,000 on port-a-potties, hand-washing stations and other equipment. While some schools have equipped tents with propane heaters, White River Valley Principal Owen Bradley said his students can handle the expected November daytime temperatures in the 30s (about 0 Celsius) without them.

Bradley said one upside will be an opportunity to help students better understand and appreciate nature.

“We hope they value it forever and help us save the planet,” he said.

Schools bringing students back this fall will require or at least strongly suggest masks, but officials say they can only be so effective during six-hour school days indoors. Air circulation is needed.

Stephen Murley, the school superintendent in Green Bay, Wisconsin, said most of his district’s 42 campuses have older air systems. When there is high humidity, they are set to recirculate drier indoor air to prevent unhealthy black mold from growing on the walls — but battling the coronavirus requires fresh air.

“We have two things working at odds with each other,” Murley said.

Janet Robinson, the superintendent in Stratford, Connecticut, said some of her district’s 13 schools were built between 80 and 100 years ago and aren’t capable of handling modern air systems — “they are a challenge.” There are also crowding issues — one has classrooms built for 15 students but that typically have 25, making social distancing impossible.

“It is kind of naive for politicians and whoever to say, ‘Just bring (the students) in and keep them at 6 feet (2 meter) distance,‘” she said.

Brian Toth, superintendent of the Saint Marys Area School District in northern Pennsylvania, said his district’s five schools’ air systems have no exit vents to circulate fresh air in and the virus out. He estimates it would cost at least $600,000 per school to replace the systems. When his schools reopen Aug. 31, students will be asked to wear masks, but Pennsylvania law exempts children whose parents claim they have a physical or mental condition.

“You look at the way schools were built, nobody expected to have a classroom with a 6-foot radius around a student,” Toth said. Instead, classrooms “pack them in like sardines and now we are facing the consequences.”

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