How safe are our schools?

Oct. 16, 2020, 2:19 a.m. | By Lilia Wong and Jon Eckert | 1 year, 1 month ago

Talks of reopening raise concerns about ventilation efficacy in MCPS.

MCPS is currently investigating the possibility of opening schools during the second quarter for select groups of students with the highest degree of need, possibly renouncing their previous announcement that the first semester would be conducted entirely virtually.

Photo: Shashi Arnold

MCPS sent an email to staff members on Sept. 25 giving a 45-day notice of the possibility of returning to in-person classes. The notice was required by a deal agreed upon by the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) and MCPS. Superintendent Jack Smith clarified that the notification does not signify that MCPS will shift to in-person learning. “This does not mean that in-person instruction will begin in 45 days,” he wrote. “It means that we can… do more in-depth collaborative planning for the eventual return to instruction in buildings.”

The MCEA president, Christopher Lloyd, declined to comment for this story.

The possibility of returning to in-person classes places a burden on MCPS to keep students safe and prevent the spread of COVID-19 within schools, a task that school districts across the country have struggled with. 

Heating, ventilation, and air condition (HVAC) systems are essential to limiting the spread of COVID-19, according to Linsey Marr, the Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech. “[HVAC systems] are critical. Ideally, you could open the windows if the weather is conducive for it. That will greatly improve ventilation, preventing a buildup of virus in the air,” she said in a press conference. 

During the same press conference, panelists stressed the importance of ventilation and airflow in indoor spaces to stop the spread of COVID-19, as virus particles can travel further than six feet in the air. By keeping air flowing in a classroom coupled with the use of masks, the likelihood of spreading the virus decreases significantly and prevents a buildup of virus particles in the air of a classroom.  

MCPS’s Key Facility Report from 2019 reported that Blair’s HVAC system was classified as needing review. This means minor components may need repair but the system as a whole did not need to be fixed or replaced. 

William Rose, a math teacher at Blair, described his experiences with ventilation at Blair as flawed. “Blair’s ventilation system does not work perfectly. On any given day, there are sometimes some rooms that are receiving no airflow.” 

According to Rose, the quality of the HVAC systems varies from room to room. “There are some rooms that are just totally not air-conditioned, and some days when it's cold, there are some rooms that are not getting any heat,” he said. “It's a constant problem. They're always kind of trying to fix it, but it seems that it's never fixed.” 

During a Board of Education meeting on Oct. 6, Smith noted that the MCPS is trying to upgrade air filters and HVAC systems. He said MCPS has requested additional funding for these measures from the Montgomery County Council and that the request is currently under review. 

The procurement contracts presented at the Board of Education meeting from Smith reveal that MCPS wishes to purchase HEPA air filters, which trap harmful particles in the environment, and indoor air quality equipment and supplies.

The county has already begun to utilize school buildings, largely for SAT testing. In these situations, an emphasis on social distancing has taken priority over an overhaul of any ventilation systems. 

Scott Murphy, the MCPS Director of College and Career Readiness, oversees SAT testing in MCPS buildings. Murphy said that many social distancing measures have been taken. "Capacity was limited to 250 students at each high school testing site,” he explained. “There were no more than 10 students in a normal size classroom during SAT testing."

Murphy also noted that during testing, masks were provided and students answered a health questionnaire, per requirements from the College Board. 

Kimberly Prather, an expert on aerosols (small liquid droplets suspended in the air) and a professor at the University of California San Diego, recommends as many people as possible within the school should be notified of a COVID-19 case should it occur. Virus particles often move farther than six feet, and masks alone do not fully mitigate one’s inhalation of the virus indoors. “If [schools] have [all] desks six feet apart and someone gets infected, the whole class is not told,” she said. “I personally think that that kind of guidance should be changed so that everyone in that classroom… [is made aware].” 

According to an informal Silver Chips survey, 25 out of 37 Blair students said they would not feel safe returning to in-person classes in the second quarter. Additionally, 26 out of 37 students said that they don’t believe MCPS can protect students from catching COVID-19.

While students overwhelmingly said that they would not feel safe returning to in-person classes, 26 out of 37 students believe that they would perform better academically should classes shift to an in-person format. Still, 21 out of 37 of students said they would choose virtual learning over in-person classes for the second marking period.

Last updated: Feb. 9, 2021, 2:23 a.m.

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