The Department of Public Works and their consultants on Wednesday said the district’s school buildings are safe for use, as students, teachers and staff prepare to begin the academic year.
“These schools are safe to occupy at this time,” Brendan Leary of consultant Siemens said at Wednesday’s special School Committee meeting. “I don’t see any concerns as to why they aren’t.”
Leary was unable to provide the School Committee any current air quality assessments as of Wednesday morning, but assured that fresh air is being added all the time and the only thing they can do at this time is “improve the overall air exchange in these buildings.”
DPW Director Mike Hale said that in 2017, an air quality test at East Gloucester Elementary School showed everything was well within the parameters set by the Department of Public Health and OSHA.
“I don’t think we are going to have a difficult time meeting air quality standards,” Hale said.
The affirmation comes at a time when community members are concerned about the air quality in the buildings.
A late-August post on the Gloucester Teachers Association Facebook page posed the question “What makes Gloucester think it’s safe to have dozens of children and adults together in school?”
The post elicited more than 90 responses from members demanding further air quality inspection, and referencing the town of Andover, whose educators refused to enter school buildings until safety was negotiated.
A few parents noted that they would feel much safer if a report on air quality was shared. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health’s Coalition to Safely Reopen Schools has pinpointed proper ventilation and circulation of air to be addressed before any efforts are made to reopen schools.
At Wednesday morning’s meeting, Hale said “there is not a day that goes by that we are not working on this.”
“There are a lot of concerns about the state of our equipment,” Hale said. “There is no question that we have older schools and older equipment. That does not mean that it doesn’t perform. What it does mean is that when it does break it is harder to replace.”
He added that the older equipment does make it difficult to get it to work as efficiently with “just a flip of a switch.”
Leary reiterated that the buildings are safe to enter.
Hale said that while the city can make improvements to the older infrastructure, they can’t fix intentional or unintentional obstruction to the vents in each room.
“They are obstructed oftentimes by the user of that room whether it is on purpose or not,” he said, adding that the DPW has asked that each school stop putting up tapestries over the vents and using them as bookshelves.
“Univents are the air exchange and the heaters in those rooms,” he said. “They can’t be obstructed.”
While the city is focused on air quality in the buildings, Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken said it is not the most important thing to prevent the spread of COVID in schools.
“It is the personal hygiene,” she said. “We to have faith in the teachers, faith in the parents, faith in the system and in ourselves and make sure that what we are doing is OK.”
Superintendent Ben Lummis requested that the DPW provide a list of what the district’s staff should and should not do, what to do about open windows, cleaning protocols, a weekly progress report, and updated numbers as air quality testing come in.
“Going in to the 2020 school year, we are about as prepared as we possibly can be,” Hale said.
Taylor Ann Bradford can be reached at 978-675-2705 or firstname.lastname@example.org.