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Air quality and ventilation issues trip up school reopenings across Massachusetts

“Are these buildings really going to be safe when we are asked to go back?”

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff
Open windows and a fan are used as the ventilation system at the Mather Elementary School in Dorchester.

On some days, the smell of sulfur lingers in the air at the 98-year-old Higginson Inclusion School in Roxbury. Rodents scurry around the floors, and the tall, heavy windows in special-education aide Allie Bledsoe’s classroom only stay open with blocks propped under them — if she can get them open in the first place.

The Higginson’s problems, as well as those at dozens of other Boston schools with inadequate ventilation and broken windows, have been well-known for years, but city and school officials have been slow to respond. Now, that neglect has become a major hurdle in reopening schools amid a pandemic in which airborne spread of the novel coronavirus is a major concern.

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A range of city data suggests that getting buildings ready to welcome students will be a big job. A city-commissioned report two years ago found air quality and ventilation to be poor or deficient in more than half of Boston’s 125 schools, including the Higginson. In fact, only 35 schools have building-wide ventilation systems — many nearly a half-century old — while 90 schools have limited or no mechanical ventilation, making often rickety windows the best option to bring in fresh air.

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