CPS Says Building Air Quality Is Safe As Debate Continues Over Reopening Schools

Chicago Public Schools says more than 90% of schools meet air quality and ventilation standards. The teachers union opposes reopening.

WBEZ
As Chicago Public Schools seeks to reopen buildings during the pandemic, questions about air quality have been raised repeatedly by the Chicago Teachers Union. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
WBEZ
As Chicago Public Schools seeks to reopen buildings during the pandemic, questions about air quality have been raised repeatedly by the Chicago Teachers Union. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

CPS Says Building Air Quality Is Safe As Debate Continues Over Reopening Schools

Chicago Public Schools says more than 90% of schools meet air quality and ventilation standards. The teachers union opposes reopening.

In the face of strong opposition to its plan to return some students to classrooms, Chicago Public Schools on Wednesday released air quality and ventilation reports showing that more than 90% of schools meet standards.

Officials said the school district audited classroom ventilation systems and cleared the vast majority of them. According to the district, 91% have functioning mechanical ventilation and the rest have access to windows that can open. All classrooms also will get air purifiers.

Officials also hired independent industrial hygienists to assess air quality in 20% of the rooms in each school. They determined all campuses were OK for students. Schools were evaluated in four areas: airborne particulates, carbon monoxide levels, temperature and relative humidity.

Schools officials have proposed resuming in-person classes for pre-K students and some special needs students as early as this month. Chief Operating Officer Arnie Rivera said all those students would be in classrooms with cleared ventilation systems.

As an extra precaution, each CPS classroom will be outfitted with one of 20,000 air purifiers the school district is buying, at a cost of $8.5 million. Reports on individual schools will be available on the school district’s website.

“Our announcement today is just the latest step to ensure a safe return to school for our students, and we will continue to take many more steps forward as we continue to put their safety above anything else,” he said.

Yet Rivera declined to say if plans to bring students back for in-person this month were still moving forward. He said an announcement will be made soon.

But there are many reasons why it’s increasingly unlikely that students will return any time soon. The number of COVID-19 cases has surged in recent weeks. The daily case count now far exceeds 400, a benchmark the city cited earlier this year for teaching remotely only.

The number of cases in Chicago Public Schools buildings is also on the rise, with 47 “actionable cases” just last week — more than any other week since the pandemic started. In an actionable case, the school district determines a pause in operations at the infected location is warranted. Most schools are operating with a skeleton staff.

Under these conditions, it is questionable whether parents — who will have the option to continue with remote learning — will want their children in school buildings. The school district has yet to announce the response to an “intent to return” form sent to parents. But this summer, when district officials floated a plan to have students return, the majority of parents said they would not send their children.

The Chicago Teachers Union is fervently challenging returning their members to school buildings and has made ventilation a key issue. In a statement Wednesday afternoon, the union accused CPS’ ventilation inspectors of failing to assess a measure they call essential — the exchange of fresh air in classrooms. Union leaders also continue to demand that independent inspectors should be allowed in schools.

“CPS and the mayor shouldn’t break their arms patting themselves on the back, because today’s announcement also raises some red flags,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said in the statement. “We’re not where we need to be in terms of systemic safety issues that must be addressed, or in terms of actually verifying CPS data, which is a contractual right they continue to deny us.”

CTU also called on CPS to identify criteria that would trigger a return to in-person learning.

There will be a hearing Thursday on the union’s request that the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board secure a court injunction to stop CPS from forcing clerks and other staff to work in buildings. An arbitrator ruled last month that school clerks shouldn’t be required to work inside school buildings if it is feasible to work remotely

The union said at least two clerks contracted COVID-19 while at school and one of them passed it to her entire family, including at-risk relatives.

The union also is circulating a petition that calls for the school district to have four protocols in place before bringing students back into schools: regular testing for students and staff; a contact tracing plan; a plan for closings when outbreaks occur; and “transparent and comprehensive” reporting of ventilation and air quality systems.

Chicago Public School officials said they were releasing the air quality and ventilation reports because they want parents to have them before the second quarter, which is when they are proposing bringing some students back into schools. The second quarter begins on Monday, Nov. 9.

But Rivera stressed that ensuring proper air quality and ventilation are not mitigation measures schools need to take to prevent spreading the coronavirus. The five mitigation measures prioritized by the CDC are cloth masks, social distancing, disinfecting areas, practicing hand hygiene and contact tracing.

With these measures in place and evidence that school spread is low, the Chicago Department of Public Health continues to support returning students to school, said Dr. Jennifer Seo, a CDPH medical director. Health officials have said the harm to students caused by keeping them out of school outweighs the minimal risk they will catch COVID-19 or spread it.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.