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Newton to test and repair school ventilation systems amid airflow concerns during pandemic

During spot-checks conducted at four Newton schools on Sept. 18, one room at Franklin Elementary School in Newton tested below industry standards for the introduction of outside air.
During spot-checks conducted at four Newton schools on Sept. 18, one room at Franklin Elementary School in Newton tested below industry standards for the introduction of outside air.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Newton Public Schools announced plans to test the ventilation systems in every classroom to be used for in-person learning, servicing as needed, after recent inspections raised concerns that a significant portion of classroom HVAC units might fail to meet minimum airflow standards, raising concerns about COVID-19 spread.

During spot-checks conducted Sept. 18, four of the 12 rooms tested fell below industry standards for the introduction of outside air — two at Ward Elementary, one at Franklin Elementary, and one at the Newton Early Childhood Program.

Newton began reopening its elementary schools Sept. 21 for hybrid programs that brought students back into classrooms part time. Officials hope to launch hybrid learning at the middle school level in November, while high schoolers are expected to attend classes remotely.

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The ventilation plans, which were first outlined in a memo to the school committee Sept. 21, will be executed in two parts, simultaneously, beginning with the district’s elementary schools.

Starting from the oldest buildings, HVAC contractors will focus their efforts on underperforming units, replacing motors, removing blockages, and doing any other work needed to maximize the flow of fresh air, according to the memo.

Meanwhile, air testing firms will begin with district’s newer schools and work backward, driving the maintenance strategy for those buildings. Exceptions include Angier, Zervas, Cabot, and Horace Mann elementaries and Newton North High School, as their buildings contain different equipment and will be tested separately.

After the two groups pass each other, the testing firms will double-check the servicing work done in the older schools, “to make sure appropriate modifications were made,” NPS Director of Communications Julie McDonough wrote in an email.

The district will make all servicing work and testing results available to the public, according to the memo.

In total, the district expects to service and repair more than 1,000 unit ventilators ″in as many as 20 schools,″ a process which Newton Commissioner of Public Buildings Josh Morse expects will take six to eight weeks.

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“Once I understand the full breadth of the staffing that the contractors are going to be able to provide and get a few days of progress under our belts … we’ll get a sense of whether we want to deploy some of these contactors to the middle schools and high schools to ensure that we are not a limiting factor,” Morse said in a joint city council and school committee meeting Sept. 24.

“That’s a long-winded way of saying that we will be ready, from a facilities standpoint, for middle school and high school as well.”

As they wait for the work to be finished, the school district is instructing teachers to keep windows open during the day and is running unit ventilators and exhaust fans until 10 p.m., in an effort to “flush spaces after occupancy,” district spokesperson McDonough wrote in an email.

Combined with other steps the district has taken, including reducing the number of students and staff in each classroom, “we are comfortable with the safety of our ventilation systems in our buildings,” McDonough wrote.

Michael Zilles, president of the Newton Teachers Association, said in an interview that while this testing should have been completed much earlier, he was satisfied with the district’s plans.

“They’re doing a full measurement and verification process in every building to measure the air exchange in every room,” Zilles said. “That’s what has been important to the NTA from the very get-go.”

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However, Zilles questioned whether the district had backup plans if things go awry, such as when contractors encounter an HVAC unit that cannot be brought to standard in a short period of time.

“What are you going to do during the school year when a unit ventilator breaks — what are you going to do with all the students and staff that are in that room for that day?” Zilles said. “What’s going to happen when the power goes out in the building, which has happened already this year, and there’s no ventilation in the entire building?”

On Sept. 24, Newton city councilors and school officials discussed the district’s efforts to address ventilation inside school buildings.

Some questioned the timing of the assessments, which were conducted three days before Newton elementary students began partial in-person learning.

“Air quality has been something that has been raised by a whole bunch of folks for a number of months now,” Councilor Marc Laredo of Ward 7 said during the Zoom meeting. "Where in the school system is the responsibility for undertaking this work, and where did it fall down?

In order to ensure all classrooms' HVAC units meet airflow standards, Morse said the city contacted 75 ventilation contractors throughout the Northeast and plans to finish testing and servicing classrooms within six to eight weeks.

“I am speaking as much to parents as I am to the council — I will move heaven and earth to get this done as fast as possible,” Morse said. “I assure you that not a second had gone by that I am not working on this since this past week.”

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Joel Lau can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.