New York City Schools Chancellor David Banks has moved forward with a $27 million contract for replacement filters for thousands of air purifiers the Department of Education purchased as part of its mitigation strategy in classrooms during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Department officials have known since the air purifiers were purchased in 2020 that their primary filters must be replaced annually. However, records show the new contract for filters was implemented on July 25, 2022 as an emergency measure that allowed the department to move forward with the spending plan before its approval by the Panel for Educational Policy, a governing body that oversees the education department, and before the contract was registered with the city comptroller.

“This emergency has arisen as a result of the need to replace the filters in the existing devices for the start of the 2022-2023 school year,” said Juan Rosales, Banks’ chief of staff, in a declaration to the panel on behalf of the chancellor. “The Education Law authorizes me to create ‘a process for emergency procurement in the case of unforeseen danger to life, safety, property, or a necessary service.’”

The panel is expected to vote on whether to formally approve the contract in a public meeting scheduled for Thursday evening. The education department did not respond to a question about how the contract would be handled if the panel votes no.

The Intellipure Compact air purifiers – supplied by a Manhattan-based company called Delos Living – have sparked controversy within school communities in the past because of questions raised over their efficacy. They have a lower air-flow rate than other similarly priced models, meaning they do not ventilate and clean the air as much as others. As Gothamist reported last autumn, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend a purifier with a minimum clean air delivery rate of 325 cubic feet per minute. The Intellipure Compact purifiers purchased by the education department produce half this rate and only on its highest setting.

This particular model also does not use HEPA filters, which are recommended by the CDC for protecting against the spread of COVID-19.

Delos said these air purifiers can match or exceed the industry standard that more traditional HEPA filters provide. It also claims the devices are more adept at capturing viruses. The city has spent roughly $60 million with the company so far according to city records — with new contracts as recent as this May.

The cost of the replacement filters comes at a time when schools are facing more than $370 million in budget cuts by the Adams administration due to declining enrollment, according to an estimate by the comptroller. Unlike the purchase of the air purifiers and initial supply of filters, which were initially paid for using federal funds, the latest $27 million purchase will be paid for using local tax dollars.

Information provided by the education department to the Panel for Educational Policy shows that, for each of the Intellipure Compact air purifiers it purchased, it is paying $115 plus $22.59 in shipping costs for each set of replacement filters as part of the emergency contract, which includes one primary filter and two prefilters that have to be changed once every six months. Filter replacements for another, larger Intellipure non-HEPA filter purifier used in schools cost $540 each plus shipping costs.

The education department said it has acquired more than 160,000 Intellipure air purifiers from Delos so far. Two of the Compact air purifiers were placed in every public school classroom in the city in 2021. Others are being used in common spaces such as auditoriums and cafeterias.

Rosales’ declaration said the agency had tried to find an alternate source for the replacement filters, but “found that Delos has an exclusive contract with the device manufacturer to distribute the specified replacement filters for these devices.” Intellipure models are produced by Healthway, based in Pulaski, New York, which was recently acquired by the private equity firm AE Industrial Partners.

In response to a question from Gothamist about why the chancellor adopted the contract under emergency conditions mere weeks before the start of the school year, the education department said the timing was to “ensure contracts are competitive and equitable” and that “delivery is made immediately so installation is completed as quickly as possible.”

A spokesperson did not respond to a follow-up question seeking clarity on how the timing achieves those aims.

According to records obtained by Gothamist via a freedom of information request, Delos Living offered the city a subscription for replacement filters that would have locked in a fixed price of $53 per filter over four years, though it’s unclear how that offer compares to the price the education department is paying now because the new contract includes a set of three filters for each purifier. The department said it did not purchase a subscription.