Despite contradicting reports over conditions at the Martin Luther King Jr. Educational Complex—a Manhattan school now ordered to close ahead of reopening because of poor airflow issues—a ventilation expert argues that an internal memo drafted by union members confirms that the school is not safe to reopen. The repairs needed may also be costly.
"I would say this school is really not ready to be opened up," said Jack Caravanos, a clinical professor of environmental health at New York University School of Global Public Health and a certified industrial hygienist.
Caravanos examined the internal memo written on August 17th by inspectors from the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), shared with Gothamist/WNYC, outlining their findings of the campus’ ventilation system. The memo came just over a week before School Ventilation Action Teams, composed of experts from the School Construction Authority, assessed airflow conditions at 1,600 public school buildings ahead of teachers reporting on September 8th.
The MLK Jr. Educational Complex, a building located on Amsterdam Avenue in the Upper West Side, is home to six high schools that enroll more than 2,000 students. Classrooms are within the interior of the five-story building and have no windows, a worry from infectious disease experts who fear they can be hotbeds for spreading the virus. The schools are completely reliant on a mechanical ventilation system that is plagued with problems. It’s the reason why principals from each school applied to be exempt from the city Department of Education’s hybrid learning plan. The DOE denied the application on August 13th.
Listen to WNYC's Cindy Rodriguez's report on school ventilation.
Caravanos pored over the memo, which concluded that so-called fresh air louvers—which allow natural air to flow in and out of buildings—are not open, meaning fresh air won't course through the building.
"There are standards by professional associations that require a certain minimum percent of fresh air for comfort and health. And it appears from this report that all the fresh air intakes are in the closed position and they're actually damaged," said Caravanos. "Not only can they not be easily open, but they're broken, and they apparently have been broken for a while."
Fixing the air louvers—which can break down if they're rusty, become caked with bird feces, or get mechanically worn out—can present challenges, said Caravanos.
"It may depend on the problem. It may be a short-term repair or if it's really deficient, the system may have to be completely redesigned and rebuilt," he said, noting the repair work can be costly.
Despite the closed air louvers, UFT chapter leaders were told by the union that teachers can re-enter the building, according to an email obtained by Gothamist/WNYC, noting that the HVAC system in the building was working properly. But a day later, the UFT inexplicably reversed course.
“The fact that they went through the effort of sending in people initially earlier in the summer, declared that they were very concerned about the building and then a few days before we were supposed to go in say, ‘the building’s fine, clear for occupancy’ and then the day before we’re supposed to report say, ‘actually no, the building is not fine and it’s so bad that you’re not even going to return there two weeks later. It betrays a horrendous lack of transparency,” said a teacher from the High School of Arts and Technology who wanted to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation from the union. “That is not good for any organization, let alone the union.”
The UFT has not responded yet to questions about why teachers were told the HVAC system was working properly.
The ventilation memos produced by the union are internal documents and not shared with the public. But what public school parents are able to see are ventilation reports compiled by the DOE. These reports are checklists of whether classrooms have windows that open, and supply and exhaust fans that work. Caravanos says it is a good start but not enough for a parent to make an informed decision about whether to send their child back to school.
He says a critical factor in determining whether a school is receiving proper airflow is determining whether the air coming into a building is recycled or fresh, the latter being more important. The air should also be replaced at least four times per hour. This is called the airflow exchange rate. The DOE has said it is not measuring airflow rates but providing schools with HEPA filters and CO2 detectors to determine whether air circulation is sufficient or not.
“The City is taking aggressive action to make schools and classrooms safe by [September] 21st – or they will not be used,” wrote DOE spokesperson, Nathaniel Styer, in a statement. “We are working in conjunction with our labor partners to ensure that schools have functional ventilation, PPE, and the resources they need to practice social distancing and good hygiene. No one action is sufficient to stop the spread, but taken together these necessary precautions can safely reduce the risk of transmission inside our schools.”
Older school buildings will rely heavily on open windows for ventilation. Caravanos said this can be problematic because sometimes the atmospheric pressure in a building can be pushing air out instead of allowing fresh air to come in.
"When you open a window, air can actually leave the building if it's very hot in the room and it's cold outside. And the opposite can also happen where you open a window and air is blasting into the room," said Caravanos. "So just having a window open is very hard to ascertain the exchange rate. But one can argue if it's opened by a couple of feet...it’s probably doing a decent job recirculating the air."
At the MLK Jr. Educational Campus, there are no windows to open. A UFT spokesperson said the ventilation system will probably need extensive work and the DOE is bringing in an outside firm to evaluate how to fix it.
For principals at the large school complex, that means they are back where they started, asking the DOE to allow their students to learn remotely, from home.