As high-needs students headed back to in-person learning last week across Boston, the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) and Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) released a report outlining safety concerns and recommendations for school buildings based on walkthroughs that the organizations took part in.
The report named East Boston’s Curtis Guild Elementary School as one of seven schools that raised some concerns among BTU and MassCOSH members.
BTU and MassCOSH members participated in the walkthroughs of the Curtis Guild and five other schools to identify changes to the buildings needed to create a safe and healthy learning and teaching environment during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The organizations found major issues relating to windows and fans, ventilation and filtration, indoor air quality inspection data, and cleaning protocols.
At the Curtis Guild the report found that “Rooms do not have at least one operable window and/or fan to facilitate air exchange in the nurse’s office, medical waiting room (isolation room), staff bathrooms and student bathrooms.”
“Educators are eager to have students return in person for in-person instruction in safe school facilities and are taking the initiative to ensure that buildings and staff have what they need to keep everyone safe,” read the report.
The need to prepare Boston Public Schools (BPS) for in-building instruction is a monumental task that has become even more critical as Mayor Martin Walsh announced recently that the City of Boston is “very close” to the “red zone” in the Mass Department of Public Health’s color-coded map which categorizes communities based on the average rate of COVID-19 cases.
“The red category represents the highest risk and rate of cases (at least eight per 100,000 people),” said BTU in a statement. “ In addition to ensuring social distancing, masks, hygiene, and cleaning and disinfecting, schools must ensure that students and staff are protected from all forms of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), in particular airborne transmission of viral aerosols. Airborne aerosol transmission involves viral particles that can float in the air for long periods of time over distances well beyond six feet. It occurs when live virus is exhaled by infected individuals and then inhaled by another (uninfected) person.”
The goal of these walkthroughs was to affirm that changes necessary in school buildings to create a safe and healthy learning and teaching environment during the COVID-19 pandemic were in place. This report details key concerns and recommendations of MassCOSH’s expert health-technical committee after those six walkthroughs as well as a technical review of data collected by BTU building representatives’ during their walkthrough inspections conducted with school leaders, nurses, custodians, parents, and high school students throughout 1055 schools in the District between September 14-18.
“Our highest-needs students are expected to go back to school a week from today, and while some of our buildings are ready, many of them are not verifiably safe,” said Jessica Tang, president of the BTU. “We cannot send our students and educators into buildings that aren’t properly ventilated and maintained, and we will continue to work with the district and city to ensure that they are.”
At the Curtis Guild MassCOSH made several recommendations for Nurses Offices and Isolation Rooms.
MassCOSH Recommendations included identifying and, when necessary, isolating potential cases of COVID-19 based on presence of symptoms.
“In order to safely isolate staff or students who may have COVID-19 while protecting school nurses and reducing the risk of further COVID-19 spread throughout the school every school building must have an isolation room; ventilation in the nurse’s suite and isolation room must meet six air changes per hour (ACH), with air being completely ventilated out of the building, not recirculating to other parts of the building (negative air pressure); Portable air cleaners with HEPA filters are important for both the nurse’s office and the isolation area to achieve proper filtration; and nurses and any staff working in the nurse’s office or isolation room must be provided with sufficient PPE: N95 respirators, face shields or eye protection, gloves, gowns, and other PPE as needed,” wrote MassCOSH in their report on the Eastie school.
The BTU is advocating for another walkthrough for all facilities to assure that all required items are in place when staff and students are to be in the facilities.
“We are very concerned about the condition of some of the BPS buildings in terms of sending children and educators back so soon,” said Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, Executive Director of MassCOSH. “We hope this report helps educators, students and families make informed decisions about returning to their buildings, and hopefully challenges the district to re-evaluate the conditions they are deeming safe for their students.”
BTU and MassCOSH thanked all of the custodians, facilities, engineering and maintenance staff for their incredible work over the spring, summer and fall.
“Due to the unprecedented crisis our communities have faced, these workers have been asked to do more to upgrade the schools’ facilities in a few short months than-for many of our schools-over the last few decades,” said BTU and MassCOSH in a joint statement. “This is in addition to substantial investment in our facilities by the City of Boston over the last few years and we acknowledge that effort. While we still have concerns about what work needs to be done to ensure health and safety, it is the incredible commitment and effort put forth by the building and facilities staff members that has enabled the school buildings to get to where they are and to where they will be.”