There are five windows in Kathryn Peake’s East Boston classroom. As part of the Boston Public Schools’ plan for a phased reopening of buildings for in-person instruction, a fan is set in front of one of the windows — the only one that opens.
The fan is the type that might fit inside an open window to circulate air in or out.
But, as Peake noted when she shared a photo of the setup on social media in mid-September, the large paned window in her classroom at the Donald McKay School opens inward from the top, cracking just a few inches — leaving the window fan sitting on the ledge below.
“Can you provide guidance on how to use this fan in this window?” the 6th grade math teacher wrote on Twitter, sharing a photo of the setup and tagging district and city leaders.
Only one of my windows opens in my BPS classroom. This is how wide it opens. This is my district provided fan. @BostonSchools @BCassellius @marty_walsh can you provide guidance on how to use this fan in this window? Thanks! pic.twitter.com/IEjGryeetu
— Kathryn Peake (@kathryn_peake) September 22, 2020
Peake isn’t the only Boston teacher posing questions about the efficacy of the district’s plan for using windows and fans to increase airflow in the classrooms amid the coronavirus pandemic. Throughout September and October, BPS teachers have been sharing photos of the fan and window setups in their classrooms and school buildings, expressing concerns that the measures do not work in practice and fail to provide safe and adequate ventilation for those working and learning in classrooms.
Boston Public Schools declined to provide a comment or statement to Boston.com in response to the concerns being raised by teachers for this article. In previous statements related to reopening, the district has said the “health, safety, and wellbeing of our students and staff remain our top priority.”
The district began the year with all remote learning on Sept 21, bringing students with high-needs back into classrooms part time on Oct. 1. The pushback against the district’s plan for classroom setups came as coronavirus cases rose in the city, prompting Boston Public Schools to first delay the next phase of in-person learning by a week and then ultimately halt in-person learning for all students on Oct. 22 as the COVID-19 positive case rate in the city surged to 5.7 percent. Officials say the rate will have to fall down to at least 4 percent for two consecutive weeks before the phased-in reopening can restart.
Before the halt to in-person learning in the district, Peake had at least one student one day a week in her classroom, engaged in virtual learning with the rest of the class online. She told Boston.com that while she feels her building’s administration has been responsive and done everything they can to prepare for students in classrooms, she and her colleagues remain concerned about the safety for students and teachers in the building.
“There’s not a ventilation system in place that gives me a lot of confidence for student safety, and the solution from Boston Public Schools has been to deliver fans,” she said. “And while I appreciate that effort, the classrooms are still feeling really unsafe to me in terms of ventilation.”
Peake said she tried setting her fan atop her window, as other teachers demonstrated they had brainstormed, but the cord didn’t reach and the fan didn’t seem to be sitting in a stable way.
“I’m just worried that families don’t know the reality of what classrooms are like right now and how unsafe they are for students,” Peake said of why she shared the photo on Twitter.
It’s a sentiment that other teachers echoed in interviews with Boston.com. Neema Avashia, who teaches 8th grade civics at McCormack Middle School in Dorchester, said when she arrived back in her classroom for the first time to start the year, she found the fan near her designated window still needed an extension cord in order to be plugged in.
“We [teachers] have historically been expected to provide everything,” she told Boston.com. “Some of the irony of this is it took a pandemic to get a box fan. Our kids have been going to school in 100-degree temperatures and the only fans that have ever been provided are the ones that the teachers bought themselves. Now we have a pandemic and what we’re getting is a box fan, which really is what you should have for when it’s hot. And really the solution for when you’re having a pandemic should be filtration. But it sort of feels like all of our solutions seem like sort of jerry-rigged for, ‘Oh, we’re just going to do this to say we did it.’ But it’s not actually the real solution for this moment.”
— Neema Avashia (@AvashiaNeema) September 18, 2020
In 2019, teachers raised concerns about the lack of air conditioning in many school buildings after a student fainted during class on a hot day. Jose Valenzuela, who teaches history to 11th and 12th graders at Boston Latin Academy, told Boston.com that incident, which occurred in his classroom, stands out to him a year later as he faces the fan and window setup upon a return to in-person learning. Air circulation and flow was already a problem before the pandemic, he said, expressing disbelief that a fan and window would change much.
“A lot of our buildings are in such disrepair — this is something that’s been true since before the pandemic,” he said. “It’s just exposed it more glaringly, that a lot of our buildings are really behind on their maintenance.”
After participating in safety walkthroughs held by the district in September before high-needs students returned for in-person learning, the Boston Teachers Union issued a report with the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health flagging “extensive” safety issues, including those related to ventilation and filtration.
According to the district, there are 35 school buildings with central HVAC systems. With reopening, in buildings without those systems, which instead use steam heat and have either limited or no mechanical ventilation, the district says there should be at least one operable window open in classrooms to “ensure proper ventilation.”
In reopening, the district is following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Boston Public Health Commission, and the American Society of Heating Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. It is also working with the City of Boston Public Facilities Department and the Boston Public Health Commission to review guidance on requirements for air flow for schools.
The district has replaced all air filters in schools and is testing indoor air quality in every school building, with air filters in eligible HVAC systems being upgraded to MERV-13 filters this fall. To reduce the recirculation of indoor air, the district is running ventilation systems and exhaust fans at the maximum allowable capacity, in many cases 24 hours a day.
But Avashia argued that given what many teachers are finding the setup of the fan and window “isn’t really ventilation.”
“There’s just a real disconnect between what’s being shown to the outside world and what the reality is in schools, which is that our windows don’t open the way in the photographs they are shown to open,” Avashia said. “At least not in a lot of our schools — maybe there are some schools where that’s the case.”
Before the district rolled back it’s reopening plans, Avashia was teaching high-needs students in her classroom two days a week. When in the classroom, she said, it doesn’t actually feel like the fan and window setup supports the level of air circulation needed to reduce the airborne transmission of coronavirus.
“Families need to know,” she said. “I think it’s important for families to be aware of what are the conditions that exist in our schools and are those conditions really ones that are actually safe and do really align with what we know about safe ventilation practices? … A question I have not seen anyone answer is why is this the solution that was chosen for Boston? Why is this what we decided was the right solution as opposed to other ones that potentially may have cost more but might also have been more viable in the long term?”
Vivian Ho, a math teacher at Charlestown High School, said she feels fortunate to be fully remote for instruction, even before the district reverted everyone to virtual instruction. Her usual classroom in the building doesn’t have any windows that open to the outside, so when in-person learning does resume, she will share a different classroom, with windows that open, with another teacher.
“You and that teacher could decide whether or not you wanted to teach in the same room at the same time, or if someone goes to find another room, while one of them stays in the class,” she told Boston.com. “Because it’s actually pretty hectic, if you can imagine, two people in a room trying to teach classes. And also a bunch of students in there trying to take classes and all those people talking at the same time through their separate devices. Because what’s happening really isn’t — it’s just really remote learning in a classroom.”
Valenzuela has been working entirely remotely with his students. But he volunteered recently to proctor SATs for seniors in the building.
There were about 10 students to a classroom for the duration of the test, he said. The element of the setup that felt most unsafe to him in the space was the ventilation.
“I felt really aware of my mask, I felt really aware of those surroundings and circumstances,” he told Boston.com. “And it made me think of the challenge of actually having to do instruction under those circumstances. Knowing that students are going to feel very anxious or nervous about the conditions they are being told are safe and the same for the teachers. So it sort of brought in my mind, if this is what it feels like when it’s just an SAT and I’m not being asked really to do much in the way of teaching kids, what is it going to look like in November when the conditions haven’t changed?”
This is the “ventilation” system that BPS keeps telling the public is totally and completely safe for our students and staff. pic.twitter.com/QfsFP7jLCg
— Mr. Valenzuela (@mrvalenzuela1) October 14, 2020
#SafetyFirstBPS Safe schools mean proper ventilation in ALL buildings! Our schools’ ventilation is not adequate now and they definitely won’t be in the winter!
Worcester spent $15 mil to upgrade their systems, but the kids of Boston get half measures and cheap shortcuts. pic.twitter.com/Jz8gxY2ao2
— Mr. Valenzuela (@mrvalenzuela1) October 15, 2020
While flagging their worries about how effective the fan and window approach is for creating sufficient airflow to prevent transmission of the coronavirus, the teachers also are identifying another problem with the setup: With windows open for ventilation, classroom temperatures are dropping along with the weather outside.
The district has said it will up the heat to counter the cold air from outside, but the educators expressed skepticism about how practical that effort will be as temperatures keep dropping. In the weeks prior to the district’s return to fully-remote learning, teachers took to social media sharing photos of the cold conditions in their classrooms.
The district started turning heat on in school buildings the week of Oct. 5 and is exploring other options for keeping classrooms safe and warm. The district’s approach to keeping the air temperature comfortable while maintaining the guidance from public health officials varies by school due to the age of many of the buildings.
“If all we’re giving people are these box fans and they don’t really fit in the windows in the way they’re supposed to then people are going to have to have more windows open in order to get any kind of air circulation and that means that it’s going to be cold,” Avashia said. “Our buildings aren’t well insulated at all, and, even when they are, if you’re sitting near the window, it’s going to be cold. Yes, the heat is blowing, but there’s also going to be cold air coming in. It’s not a solution that feels very grounded in what we know makes learning work for kids, which is being comfortable and feeling safe. Those are really important things, and it just sort of feels like this was the easiest solution that someone could come up with so this is what they came up with. But it doesn’t necessarily mean it was the right solution from a ventilation perspective or the right solution from a learning environment perspective.”
Peake told Boston.com that in her classroom she left a note on her whiteboard asking custodians to please leave the window open. She returned to find a kind message from a custodian saying he could do that for now, but that once the weather gets very cold, they won’t be able to leave them open overnight because of concerns related to the plumbing and pipes with frigid temperatures.
“It does give me some pause for whether or not Boston Public Schools has really thought this through in terms of how safe schools will be for students and teachers when we’re not able to keep the windows open,” she said.
— Kathryn Peake (@kathryn_peake) October 6, 2020
The teachers said they want the district to focus on safer ventilation measures, such as portable air purifiers, and more long-term investments to ensure the classrooms are safe for students. The focus, they said, should be on getting high-needs students into spaces with the safest ventilation systems — a measure advocates, teachers, and parents have been pressing for throughout the pandemic. The district has partnered with after-school providers to offer emergency learning centers where students can engage with remote learning in a supervised, quiet, internet-connected place, but advocates say the number of spaces remains short of the need.
Valenzuela expressed concern that a narrative is being layered over the issues educators are raising to framing the issue as parents and teachers being in opposition to one another.
Really, he said, teachers just want parents to know what kids will be faced with in their classrooms.
“It might really help to divide parents from teachers and pit them against each other on this particular issue,” he said. “But in the long term, that’s the most damaging thing — that relationship with parents and teachers is so essential and the trust that we have with each other is so important. … Everything that I’m saying and everything teachers are saying about the conditions of the schools are meant to be in the best interest of the kids. We don’t in any way want to be pitted against parents — we don’t feel like we are, but I do feel like that narrative is out there.”
Avashia and the other teachers emphasized that kids are already anxious about coming back to school and the setup in their classrooms doesn’t help appease that anxiety.
“They’re going to come back and be uncomfortable and cold and doubtful about whether a fan is actually sufficient ventilation,” she said. “We’re not engendering a lot of trust in them or a lot of ability to feel like, ‘You all have my back, you’re making sure I’m safe, you’re making sure I’m comfortable.’ This solution doesn’t do that.”
Below, see more of the concerns and setups being shared by BPS teachers:
To colleagues with the same type of window, here is an unknown hand demonstrating how to open the window further. Push the button in and lift off (to close again, push the button in and press down). pic.twitter.com/Fkz2aUfDEz
— Katie Mallon (@MsWaterMallon) October 2, 2020
Here’s my classroom ventilation, courtesy of a box fan awkwardly placed near the tilt-in window. I haven’t been given any masks yet, but I heard they arrived at my school today and I will get one. Also pictured: the new $900 camera we didn’t ask for. #SafetyFirstBPS pic.twitter.com/FKUzXxJzMx
— Marna Eckels (@MarnaEckels) October 20, 2020
— ivy (@ivanapcastillo) October 20, 2020
A fan facing out the window. This is air circulation at my school in Hyde Park where the rate is 9.1% I don’t understand how you think this works. @BCassellius @BostonSchools @marty_walsh pic.twitter.com/CmRM6dZmRv
— Hilary Crane-Stern (@hilarycs) October 16, 2020
— Lauren O’Malley-Singh (@dearestlauren) October 14, 2020
It’s 60 degrees in my classroom today and I am shivering even with my jacket. BPS has left me with the choice of “ventilation” or warmth. I have no students in my classroom today, so I am choosing warmth.
— Michelle Caine (@MsCaine308) October 20, 2020
I’m with the union because a safe school means a place where kids and staff don’t have to wear a jacket or gloves to do work! #SafetyFirstBPS @BTU66 @marty_walsh @BCassellius @BostonSchools @CityOfBoston @HealthyBoston @BostonGlobe pic.twitter.com/hBtvgreyFP
— Karen Alvarez (@Ms_kalvarez) October 15, 2020
BPS definition of “safe learning conditions and ventilation system.” I went in prepared on Oct. 5 dressed for what I knew was going to be a disaster. This is fall. How about winter? #SafetyFirstBPS pic.twitter.com/KlKcYBWImW
— Tired and Worn out (@wendy_esl) October 20, 2020
Safe schools means adequate ventilation. I am a teacher at the Phineas Bates School. I am taking action because I care for the safety of my students and their family members. #safetyfirstbps pic.twitter.com/IowJS5RFO6
— Bryde King (@BrydeKing) October 15, 2020