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More than 30 public schools in Philadelphia have either no ventilation system or a faulty one that needs fixing, and some of those schools will be part of a Feb. 22 planning reopening for 9,000 elementary school students.
The district will utilize window fans as the main component at those schools to ventilate the air in classrooms, and Superintendent William Hite Jr. on Thursday defended the reopening. He cited federal guidelines that approve of the air flow provided by those fans and promised daily monitoring in every classroom.
The 9,000 students returning to schools later this month will be in kindergarten and the first and second grades. It's the beginning of what Hite hopes will be a phased return of all students this school year even as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
"It’s a temporary solution while we are getting systems fixed and up and running again," Hite said. "It goes back to the good faith efforts to introduce fresh air into these spaces, particularly those without ventilation."
Experts have said the fans proved able to ventilate a classroom at standards set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control that allow for up to 18 students in the room, Hite said.
"To date we’ve spent about $4 million on this effort to get classrooms ventilated" and the district is confident everyone will be safe," Hite said.
He pointed to other school districts, without mentioning any by name, that have already reopened in-person learning by simply opening windows in classooms.
Some parents and the city teachers' union is not as convinced.
"Right now with those fans? One is risking it all to send them to school," Philadelphia parent Elizabeth Torres Pacheco told our sister station Telemundo 62, who translated her remarks for this article.
She said she is not ready to send her sons back to in-person learning yet.
Hite and other district officials have said reopening will help students who have struggled with digital learning, and may feel isolated.
It is unclear exactly how many students have failed to attend daily virtual learning classes, but Hite said on Thursday that attendance is similar to the first few weeks of the school year in September when that figure stood at about 80%.
The district is setting occupancy limits in classrooms based on those tests, which measure the volume of air circulating in the room in cubic feet per minute. The rooms will follow a safety standard of 15 cubic feet of outdoor air, per person, per minute. The district says the fans were tested to pump 270 cubic feet of air per minute into rooms, allowing for 18 people in a room.
Some other schools have had HVAC systems repaired and can circulate enough air without needing window fans installed, according to the district's webpage.
Teachers told Telemundo 62 of concerns about whether the fans will make classrooms cold, what will be done during inclement weather, and if the fans can last under constant use.
The district says it purchased 3,000 fans, including extras in case replacements need to be made later in the school year. The district requires classrooms to be at least 68 degrees and temperature tests have showed the room can hold that temperature with the fans blowing air in.
Other city leaders, including Councilmember Helen Gym, are concerned about ventilation at schools. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said late last month that the district was not keeping up with a memorandum of understanding the union sent. The union wants educators to be vaccinated before returning to buildings - but Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said Tuesday that educators haven't yet been called to receive the vaccine as the city works through Phase 1B.
"I was surprised to learn when I got into this that window fans can really make a big difference in the amount of ventilation that takes place," Farley told reporters in the city's news conference on the pandemic Tuesday. "We do think that this virus is spread in large part, not entirely but in large part, through the air, so if we increase ventilation that should lower the risk," Farley said. "...If we have an inexpensive solution, let’s use it."
The CDC guidance for reopening schools (linked here) encourages opening windows when weather allows, and fans positioned carefully to not blow potentially contaminated air from one person onto another.