Lamont Administration Won't Release School Air Quality Results As Complaints Mount
Kristen Record is a physics teacher at Bunnell High School in Stratford, and every fall when school resumed, so would her migraines and coughing.
“I had always associated the start of the school year with seasonal allergies,” she said.
Record is part of a growing number of educators who say poor ventilation in their classrooms and other contaminants are making them sick. The state’s largest teachers union says that each year more educators are filing workers' compensation cases related to air quality issues in their schools.
”It’s not just the air that is making teachers sick, it’s ventilation, it’s heating and air conditioning,” said Melanie Kolek, an attorney with the Connecticut Education Association. “Some teachers come to me with rashes all over their body.”
In Stratford, Record and other teachers suspected their air in their classrooms was making them sick, but there was no way for them to know because there are no air quality standards or inspection requirements for schools. It took the extraordinary step of staff pinpointing the problem themselves — the carpet and the toxins in the chipped tile beneath it — and finding a loophole to get it replaced.
“We filed a second complaint about trip hazards, and that’s what it took to get the carpet removed,” she said.
If staff suspect that high dosages of certain chemicals are making them sick at work, they can file a complaint. But teachers union officials say such air quality complaints don’t have much success because the standards are so low.
For Record, the loophole that led to new flooring for the school helped her.
“Wow, I wasn’t the one that was sick, it was my classroom that was sick.”
So how many other classrooms throughout Connecticut are sick?
There’s an easy way to find out because the Lamont administration surveyed Connecticut’s 1,200 schools last winter to assess the ventilation systems and the presence of contaminants like mold. All but 11 districts responded.
But the Lamont administration has denied Connecticut Public’s requests since early August to release those responses, saying they’re waiting until their final report — required by the legislature — is ready.
Konstantinos Diamantis, deputy secretary for the governor’s budget and policy office and the director of school construction, couldn’t say when the responses will be available or the final report complete.
“We have one data analyst and he has other jobs besides that survey, so we’re just not done with it yet. I will be happy to share, as soon as I have it to share, rather than pieces of it. I don’t have a completed report,” he said.
The state used to publish a regular inventory of the health of school facilities. That survey and its report was done every two years, and parents and educators could look up the results online. That stopped in the years leading up to a landmark school funding trial, where the condition of city schools became an issue.
The last report was in 2013. It reveals that dozens of schools were facing air quality issues, and local officials had no immediate plans to address the problems.
Despite COVID, still no air quality requirements
Good ventilation in school classrooms is a key ingredient to reducing the spread of COVID-19, something the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said since early in the pandemic.
But only California and New Jersey have indoor air quality requirements for public schools and other government buildings. Scientists are calling for that to change. The Lamont administration declined to weigh in on whether it supports such requirements for Connecticut as awareness grows around the role that poor ventilation can play in the spread of certain diseases.
Paula Schenck, an expert at UConn Health on indoor air quality, said the state does provide free consulting for school officials on improving air quality, but some misunderstand that they will be forced to make expensive upgrades.
“There are no standards where I can say there’s OSHA oversight, there’s EPA oversight, there’s CDC oversight. Here’s what there is: guidance,” she said.
Sick schools in Connecticut left on their own
Diamantis says the administration won’t be paying for ventilation systems to be replaced, repaired or upgraded during the pandemic just because many local officials haven’t prioritized ventilation for years.
“The issue of HVAC systems being failed to be maintained should have been maintained before we even knew about COVID-19. That is my frustration,” Diamantis said. “COVID is really a result that has brought everyone to their knees to understand the value of maintaining your HVAC systems. In most cases, the maintenance budgets for HVAC systems are last when people have to pick between books or other things that teachers may need. So as a result, those systems suffer, which is what I get as an excuse as to why they fail to maintain their systems,” he said.
Local officials, however, say that explanation isn’t fair.
What’s really happening is that the ventilation systems in so many schools are well over 20- or 30-year old, which experts say should be the life of a ventilation system. The 2013 survey had a long list of schools with systems much older than that.
"Most schools are designed and were done in a period of the ’50s and ’60s. So the ventilation was done in a different standard, different way of doing things,” said Scott Fitch, co-owner of Innovative Construction and Design Solutions, a company that helps schools in Connecticut with ventilation systems. “Nowadays we have comprehensive standards that are developed by American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers, which provides the ventilation requirements."
“I don’t know if I’ve seen poor maintenance or good maintenance. I mean, it seems adequate,” he said of the schools he’s worked in.
In Coventry, for example, the district is asking the state for help with the $6.1 million bill to replace decades-old systems in its middle and high schools. Coventry Town Manager John Elsesser said they’ve done the upgrades and maintained their systems, but the systems are from another era and don’t protect children from the virus spreading at anywhere near the level that a new system would.
“This is pretty standard system for its day — but technology changes and standards change. An old rotary phone won't send an email or text message. That's the type of technology change we’re talking about here,” he said.
Fitch, who works with Coventry Public Schools, agrees.
“To say that that’s a maintenance issue for why they have to upgrade and change, I don’t know if that’s true. That’s a whole paradigm shift of HVAC system design.”
As the pandemic continues to spotlight long-standing issues with the state’s school buildings, a recent survey by the teachers union of nearly 1,000 Connecticut educators found that only 27% believed their school’s ventilation system is providing them enough protection during the pandemic; nearly half were unsure.
Current state law gives the Department of Public Health the option to make funding available if it “is [a] certified school indoor air quality emergency” with building conditions that “present a substantial and imminent adverse health risk that requires remediation.”
But for now, the state isn’t considering COVID an air quality emergency in schools and isn’t getting involved.
That position has frustrated local officials, who’ve been pressing the governor’s office for months to fund air quality construction projects. That means the governor would likely have to relax the cap he has put on school construction spending as part of his strategy to rein in state borrowing. The federal aid sent to their schools and towns, several school and local officials say, falls far short of being able to get ventilation systems where they should be.
During the Council of Small Towns annual meeting earlier this year, the Democratic governor told his audience of town leaders, “Message heard. You know, I’ve been a little bit of a cheapskate when it comes to spending and when it comes to borrowing, but I also understand: a) we're in a pandemic, b) we may get some federal support on this front. That would be a very helpful,"
He also said his Office of Policy and Management knows how ventilation in schools is faring.
“What Kosta has done over at OPM is we’ve gone to most of the schools, at least we know exactly what the status is on ventilation there,” Lamont said.