Despite White House advice, deteriorating school facilities continue to pose a health risk to children.

Rashelle Chase-Miller knew she’d have to make some tough choices by the spring of 2021.

In Portland, Oregon, schools were reopening in person, including her son Leo’s charter. However, Chase-Miller, who was born and bred in the Rose City, had doubts. She’d been seeing the schools in her traditionally Black area deteriorate for decades.

She was particularly concerned about ventilation. For COVID-19 outbreaks to be avoided, there must be adequate air flow and filtering. Despite this, a city school inspection in August 2021 discovered that every inspected facility had at least one room with insufficient ventilation.

Leo, a 9-year-old boy with cerebral palsy and asthma, was another source of concern for Chase-Miller. That puts him at a higher risk of severe COVID, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If Leo gets the illness, it puts her elderly parents, who live nearby and are both over 65, at danger. Not to mention Luna, her 4-year-old daughter, who is not yet vaccinated.

“Ventilation in school is a significant deal for families like mine,” Chase-Miller told ABC News.

A lot of parents are in the same boat.

As society strives for normalcy, practically all schools have returned to classrooms. However, because SARS-CoV-2 is persistent, schools’ ability to stay open is contingent on their capacity to prevent epidemics.

This is where school infrastructure, including ventilation and filtration systems, comes into play.

Among the many proven COVID-19 prevention measures—masks, vaccines, and contact tracing—a efficient ventilation system that routinely recirculates fresh air is one of the most powerful tools for preventing transmission. Particularly since that individual mask and vaccine regulations have all but vanished, and individual vigilance is on the decline.

Even before the epidemic, many schools had decaying infrastructure, with the Government Accountability Office reporting in June 2020 that over 40% of schools—an estimated 36,000 nationwide—had inadequate ventilation systems.

These systems are becoming more important: the White House’s most recent National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan listed them as a high priority for avoiding further shutdowns. The EPA has provided recommendations for the first time on the importance of ventilation in the long-term fight against COVID; the CDC has also classified it as one of the virus’s fundamental “items in the mitigation toolkit.”

Despite the fact that schools have received billions of dollars in government money, expensive ventilation upgrades have remained low on the priority list for many schools with constrained resources.

When compared to peers who attend schools that have already invested in modern ventilation systems, pupils attending these institutions may be more exposed to the virus. Pediatricians and teachers are concerned that these children, who are typically already living in areas where COVID-19 is prevalent, may continue to lag behind.

“People have assumed the pandemic is over—but that doesn’t mean we can relax our precautionary measures,” Chase-Miller added.

“Especially since the things we’re requesting are things we should have already received.”

The following phase of the epidemic requires ventilation.

According to Chase-Miller, ventilation is more than just “hygiene theatre.”

As individual safeguards fade (masking has been made optional, vaccination rates have plateaued), systems-level methods to ensure healthy youngsters don’t breathe in particles spat by yelling, hacking, and yawning unwell classmates are critical for prevention.

According to Elliott Gall, an associate professor at Portland State University, functional ventilation systems can lower potentially contagious viral aerosols by up to 50%. He went on to say that combining these ventilation systems with portable filters might cut particle counts by up to 90%.

Improved ventilation has already been related to lower rates of airborne infections in schools and other enclosed settings (like prisons, office buildings, and nursing homes).

As a result, according to Tracy Enger, director of the EPA’s Indoor Air programme, ventilation is “frequently the difference between schools opening and staying open.”

Even the agency admits that school facilities are inadequate. According to the agency, the average American school building is nearly 50 years old. Buildings in impoverished communities, such as the Philadelphia School District, are approaching triple digits in age, according to Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

In a statement to ABC News, the EPA said, “Many school facilities were not designed and have not been rebuilt to be compatible with today’s building requirements.”

Transparency and accountability are lacking.

In Portland, this means that poor ventilation could lead to the spread of infectious particles.

According to a district internal assessment, each of the 94 schools tested had at least one room with insufficient ventilation rates. The lowest ventilation rates were frequently seen in communal places such as libraries and gyms.

The inspection did not include Leo’s school, KairosPDX, because the school’s property is publicly owned but privately operated, according to Ryan Vandehey, the district’s media relations representative.

“You’re flying blind as a parent,” Chase-Miller explained.

Chase-complaints Miller’s are dismissed by the district. Vandehey told ABC News, “We firmly think that our pupils are breathing clean air that exceeds all existing regulatory standards.” Along with other infrastructure upgrades made during the epidemic, the district acquired filters and portable air purifiers, according to Vandehey.

The majority of districts are completely opaque.

According to the GAO, 38 of 49 states had not undertaken a state-level facilities condition assessment in the previous decade as of June 2020. Public access to the information of those who did is generally limited—if it is available at all.

Jordan, who lives in Philadelphia, claims to have never heard of such tales. As a result, his union began gathering its own data. However, Jordan claimed that when issues with facilities were brought up with the district—such as black mould in some schools, which had spread from tables to cabinets to library volumes due to insufficient ventilation—they were generally treated with silence.

“Most of the time, we get a call from the person who filed the complaint saying no one has looked into the situation,” he said.

Christina Clark, a district communications officer, cited a 2021 webpage on “the facts about ventilation” as evidence of the district’s commitment to the issue, citing pandemic-era investments of more than $160 million in school buildings, among other initiatives like purchases of pricey non-FDA approved air purifiers using hazardous technology that has been banned in California. Despite receiving $1.1 billion in pandemic relief funding, that level of investment is 10% lower than the district’s yearly spending on facilities since 2017.

Jordan’s particular charges were not addressed by Clark.

Concerned about the “new normal”

Advocates believe that the absence of accountability will disproportionately affect vulnerable populations.

According to the GAO, most schools rely on property taxes to pay facility improvements, which means that poorer districts face larger budgetary constraints as a result.

According to a lawsuit filed by six districts against the state’s Department of Education (DOE), this means poorer districts have thousands of dollars less per pupil than wealthier districts, putting them far below the state legislature’s own criteria.

It also means that costly and time-consuming ventilation upgrades aren’t carried out in locations like Philadelphia’s public schools, according to Jordan. And he has no idea when or if they will because he has no idea how awful the ventilation is now.

Rich districts in Pennsylvania, such as Lower Merion, raise millions of dollars beyond their targets. The district hosted a “topping out” ceremony for its new middle school in June 2021, complete with multiple gymnasiums and a retractable-seat theatre.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment on the fiscal differences between districts or the complaint.

“Sending pupils to under-maintained schools is a subtle way of conveying to the youngsters that we don’t appreciate you as much as students from other neighbourhoods,” Jordan explained.

In Portland, the “story of two cities” is similar, according to Chase-Miller.

While neighbouring districts, such as Lake Oswego, spend lavishly on everything from unit ventilators to new-age “ionisation units” that zap virus particles, certain rooms in the city’s public schools can’t even open their windows.

All of this suggests an increased COVID risk for Leo, according to Chase-Miller. And if Leo is at a higher risk, so are his classmates, their parents, and their communities—communities that have already seen the worst of the pandemic.

Chase-Miller stated, “I’m prepared myself for the fact that he’ll definitely get it at some time.” “However, I clearly want the school to be as safe as possible and to take all feasible precautions.”

“Because he deserves it, and so do all the other kids,” she added.

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