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Ventilation? Ventilation!

September 7, 2020 pm30 3:08 pm

I need to vent. So do our schools.

But how do we know if the ventilation in our schools is adequate?

Bad ventilation is always an issue. During “good” times people claim bad air in buildings affects their health. But this is about COVID-19. What defects in ventilation put our students, and ourselves, at risk of the virus being spread?

If we were just talking about students, we have until September 21 to answer those questions. But we are not talking about just students.

Tomorrow, September 8, staff are due to report to buildings. In some schools that will be two dozen adults. In some schools that will be several hundred. The numbers are small enough that we can successfully maintain social distancing. We will have PPE, or if we don’t, the UFT has established a useful PPE protocol:

Talk with the principal.
Members wait outside.
Call UFT Hotline 212-701-9677.

But where is the Ventilation Protocol?

[                      this space left blank – but why?                   ]

My main point today is this: The UFT has provided us a PPE protocol, but not a Ventilation Protocol. We should do our best to apply the PPE protocol to ventilation as well. I’ll come back to this. But if there are ventilations questions, talk with the principal. Limit access to iffy spaces. Call the UFT Hotline. I’m not sure about the waiting outside part.

Note: Today I am addressing primarily chapter leaders and their designees. But members should be aware and informed, especially where the chapter leader has been reluctant to step forward.

Where are the reports?

The DoE reports are not yet available. They’ve known this is an issue since May or June. They’ve had all summer. This is willful disrespect to staff. This is willful disregard of our safety.

What about the UFT Walkthroughs? aka “School Safety Report”? Chapter Leaders were banned from watching the inspections.  But then the report arrived and didn’t tell me useful information about ventilation.

Ventilation (Page 4 of 16) (Consult with the custodial engineer. The intent is not for us to certify the building’s ventilation system but to verify the following questions with the custodial engineers.)

They specifically were instructed not to say whether the ventilation was safe, which is sort of what we need most.

We do have reports from over a year ago – BCA – I think that’s Building Construction Authority? but they are out of date. And I do not know how to read them correctly. But here they are. You can look up your school. Click “Mechanical” for the ventilation system.

What do I know?

  • I know that airflow is important.
  • I know that the frequency the air in a space is replaced with fresh air is important (air exchange).
  • I know that this is more important in spaces where people are generating more droplets and aerosols with more exit velocity (eating, singing, shouting).
  • I know that fewer people = less risk
  • I know that “dampers” matter.
  • I know that HEPA filters are really useful, but that they are not practical for HVAC systems.
  • I know that filters are rated by their Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) and that to get sneeze droplets we are looking for a minimum value of 13.

But none of this tells me how to evaluate a report, or a room, or an office. I am smart enough to take a guess – but what good is a guess? Do I know if a system brings in fresh air, or recirculates air within the building? Do I know if a small open window allows enough air in? Do I know if the MERV-8 filters are a problem with low occupancy? I can answer questions about cosines and permutations and matrices with certainty. I can only guess about air flow.

If I am 70% confident that a room is safe – am I willing to tell someone to go into it? With a 30% chance of being wrong? This is not about a colleague getting their clothes dirty – it’s about a potentially fatal disease.

Maybe we could get advice?

But I don’t trust the UFT leadership on this – because it so eager to open schools. (Why is Instructional Lunch safe? Because we need it to open schools. They are proceeding from their conclusion – that schools will be safe, and deriving facts based on that. We should be skeptical). Plus they have offered on ventilation – nothing. No UFT guidance on ventilation.

And I do not trust the Department of Education – because I am not stupid. And they have intentionally withheld their reports.

I have contacted an outside expert – but I know that path is not available to most schools and Chapter Leaders.

What do we do?

Minimum Level. Insist on masks at all times in the building, and social distancing. Open windows as possible, and all doors. Follow the PPE protocols, including keeping your members out if PPE is missing. (every item? Well, masks, sanitizer, sprayers… every item, or almost every item)

Iffy spaces. See if you can get agreement with the principal to shut down spaces with large question-marks. If not, advise people to avoid them, to minimize time in them, to be fully masked (preferably with N95) if they enter them briefly.

Next Level. Even if you think you know, but you are not sure, that’s a red flag. You should not be guessing when it comes to colleagues’ physical well-being. If the question is not a few spaces, but the building as a whole, or most of the building, this has been unfairly dropped on you, but it is on you. The UFT hotline on Tuesday is for PPE, not ventilation. I don’t care. Talk with your principal. Call the hotline.

Should members wait outside? I don’t know what to say. I don’t know who would be comfortable in the building, and I don’t know who would be comfortable leaving it.

Who can tell you the building is safe?

  • Not the principal
  • Not you
  • Not a science teacher
  • Not a UFT District Rep or Special Rep
  • Not a UFT safety investigator
  • Not a superintendent

If you have a potential issue the building should be cleared by an industrial hygienist, or someone with an equivalent level of training and certification.

Remember, if you do not know, you do not know. Guessing games can be fun, but not when COVID-19 is involved.


I am advising people to steer clear of a handful of iffy spaces. I am emphasizing masks at all times, and social distancing. Open windows, open doors. And I have an expert coming in, who I think my members and principal will trust. We should be able to relax a lot more (or not!!!) once we have heard from him.

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