In the 1970s, Victor Lundy, a well-known modernist architect, brought a rather unusual vision for a school to Far Rockaway, Queens.

"It is a human necessity to relate to the sky, the sun, the time of day, the weather," he said, reflecting on the project.

But nevertheless, he felt that windows would be distracting in an instructional setting. His solution was to give each classroom a skylight "created by offsetting each floor from the one below." There were side windows in each classroom, but he kept the main facade windowless.

Lundy would later call it "a piece of sculpture."

On Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYC Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza visited Lundy's masterpiece, M.S. 53 Brian Piccolo School, which also houses Success Academy and Village Academy.

It was a puzzling choice. Teachers, students, and parents are now relying on a good ventilation system to get back into the classroom, with Michael Mulgrew, the teacher's union president, citing ventilation as one of the biggest hurdles in safely reopening schools. But as a budget-starved Department of Education struggles with HVAC upgrades, schools are being told that they will largely need to rely on opening windows.

"Of all the buildings to go to, they decide to go to a building that was built in 1973 by a modernist architect, and his intent was to have no windows that would distract [students]," one teacher there, who asked not to be named, told Gothamist. "That building is a death trap, as far as ventilation. There's no supply fan, no ventilation unit. No intake or outtake for fresh air. We don't have any air conditioners."

Over the years, some of the windows at the school have been bricked over, leaving even fewer openings than Lundy's spare design intended.

Experts have increasingly recommended that schools open their windows during classroom instruction. Dr. Jack Caravanos, an environmental health specialist at NYU’s School of Global Public Health, said he believes open windows are the best way to keep air moving.

“When you open a window, there's dilution of that interior space,” he said. “And the dilution is good because the virus particles will go down and there’s less chance of being infected.”

He said schools should open all of their windows in addition to keeping their HVACs running throughout the day.

During his visit, Mayor de Blasio said the city would not open a school in which they did not "feel confident about the ventilation."

But he also said that opening windows should be the primary action schools take.

"Ventilation systems are one piece of the puzzle," he said. "The doctors actually usually say, could you please do the first thing and open the windows? That's the most amazing thing about all this is in all my conversations over months and months and months, fresh air, just direct fresh air is one of the single best things you can do. But you've got ventilation and windows, you've got the electrostatic cleaning and you've got all the other precautions. They all work together."

Carranza added, "You cannot hitch your horse to the ventilation pony, it's the PPE, it's the masks, it's the social distancing, it's the handwashing, it's the sanitation, it's a deep cleaning, it's controlling the movement, it's controlling of the movement of who comes into the building. It's all of those things."

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza tour Village Academy in Queens. A window is shown only opening a few inches.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza tour Village Academy in Queens; you can see the windows can only crack open at the top.

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Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza tour Village Academy in Queens; you can see the windows can only crack open at the top.
The Mayor's Office

While the building's classrooms have one to two windows each (the classrooms that have been subdivided have one), the teacher said they only crack open a few inches at the top, and face a wall outside — a design that does not allow for a cross-breeze and good air circulation.

There is also ongoing construction which includes the courtyard, the only outdoor space, which means an outdoor classroom option isn't even possible on the school grounds. There are windows in the courtyard-facing hallways, but the teacher we spoke with has not heard plans to move classes into the hallways, adding that those windows only open a few inches as well.

During the mayor and schools chancellor's visit on Wednesday, Village Academy principal Doris Lee said that the windows do open and she is not worried about ventilation. She also noted the school will get central air conditioning before the start of the school year.

However, the building teacher we spoke with, who provided the below photo of the installation, said they were told these will be wall units, not central air conditioning.

Lee did not respond to a request for comment.

Nathaniel Styer, Deputy Press Secretary of the NYC Department of Education, told Gothamist, "Any room that is not ready for reopening will not be used until it is. Principal Lee is doing incredible work with Custodial Engineers to make her school safe and healthy for her students and staff this fall."

Village Academy classrooms from the outside

Exterior of the building showing Village Academy classrooms

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Exterior of the building showing Village Academy classrooms

The M.S. 53 building isn't the only school building with a window shortage, or a potential ventilation issue.

Several teachers from different NYC public schools reached out to Gothamist this week with concerns.

"Our ventilation is us being required to keep all windows open," one teacher in Chelsea told us. "That’s it."

"The HVAC system in my turn of the century building is to open windows," another downtown Manhattan teacher told us. "We have been told that windows need to be open at all times."

A teacher from Park West Campus on 50th Street, which houses five schools, said their school does not have windows in any of the classrooms. "We’re in the basement of the building."

Teachers and parents have also expressed concerns about windowless classrooms on Twitter:

The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) is currently still waiting on results of an air quality test for M.S. 53.

We have reached out to the Mayor's Office and UFT for comment on classrooms with insufficient windows, and will update when we hear back.

"I feel like the union has put out a lot of their concerns, ventilation being one of them," the Far Rockaway teacher told us. "All I hear is the mayor going out and making political speeches. Just going out there and downplaying any concerns the union has expressed."

The teacher added, "There’s an urban legend that is consistently told in this Far Rockaway community, and our students still believe it. They believe that the building was originally built as a prison because of its lack of exterior windows. We just this year started talking about dispelling this widespread myth with the history of its modernist design. There are generations now who believe it was initially built as a prison."