On Monday, the city's Department of Education released ventilation reports for all city public schools. While some found the individual school reports to be lacking context, the citywide breakdown did show that only 43% of public school restrooms were found to be "operational," meaning around 57% were deemed unsafe, as the space did not have "at least one method of ventilation." These will require repairs and other improvements to ventilation systems to make them safe for students and staff returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The M.S. 53 Brian Piccolo School in Far Rockaway is one of the schools in which bathrooms were deemed unsafe. Less than a month ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYC Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza visited this school with photographers and a small press pool to highlight the DOE's reopening plans. However, following this visit, one teacher there, who asked not to be named, told Gothamist the building was "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."
The report released this week showed that in addition to ventilation problems in classrooms at the M.S. 53 Brian Piccolo School building (which also houses Success Academy and Village Academy), restrooms in the building have no supply fans, no exhaust fans, and no unit ventilators. Most, if not all, do not have windows, either.
This is "the very first building they proclaimed as ready," the teacher there told us on Tuesday after seeing the report, adding that the building had also been closed for asbestos abatement last week.
United Federation of Teachers (UFT) president Michael Mulgrew said on Wednesday, "We're waiting for the DOE to give us a response to the fact that we have a problem with the bathrooms. And if that means they're gonna have to come up with a policy [where] you can only have one person in a bathroom at a time. We will discuss that with them."
When asked about their way forward to fixing this widespread issue, the DOE's deputy press secretary Nathaniel Styer told Gothamist on Wednesday, "We identified and are currently making repairs and improvements to restrooms across the city. If a space does not have adequate ventilation, it will operate with single occupancy until such repairs can be made. In all confined spaces, social distancing often requires limited occupancy and the adaptation of restroom procedures.”
However, limited capacity is only one small part of the equation when it comes to transmission in small spaces like this.
"Restrooms are a high-risk space for disease transmission," according to the Yale School of Public Health. "In restrooms, virus germs are not only transmitted from human-to-human and human-to-object, but also can be generated and spread by flushing toilets."
To help in decreasing the risk of transmission, they point to hand hygiene, frequent disinfection of the space, and occupancy limits. However, they note, "Increased ventilation in restrooms will be critical in limiting airborne transmission; exhaust ventilation should be confirmed to be functioning properly and should be left on at all times when the school is occupied."
"To the best of our current knowledge, good ventilation is key. Period," Dr. Stephen Morse, an epidemiologist at Columbia University told us. "Increase ventilation as much as you can, [it] is clearly important to prevent transmission. I think we need to use the best protection measures in the schools, because of the inherent risks. I’d feel very anxious with anything less."
Some schools will receive standalone HEPA air purifiers from the DOE, while others have used PTA funds to purchase them. Asked about their effectiveness, Morse said, "Hard to say. In a closed room, I’d use it if I had these units, but I wouldn’t expect too much from them."
Morse also noted, "Always wear your mask to the bathroom."
Robert Troeller, president of the union representing school custodians, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.