NYC Schools Lack Ventilation to Stop COVID Spread  

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For Immediate Release:  Monday, October 5, 2020
Contact:  Kevin Bell, Esq. (325) 227-2209; Joel Kupferman, Esq. (917) 414-1983; Kirsten Stade

NYC Schools Lack Ventilation to Stop COVID Spread

Teachers File Complaint Charging Unsafe Conditions in Re-Opened Schools

New York — Many New York City schools lack sufficient ventilation to stem the spread of COVID-19 making them unsafe to reoccupy, as the NYC Department of Education (DOE)’s ventilation protocols are not scientifically valid, according to a complaint filed today on behalf of teachers and staff by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Environmental Justice Initiative (EJI). These protocols, and the DOE’s ‘quick fixes’ for schools that do not pass inspections, are NOT protective, but instead create a false sense of security.  The complaint to the New York State Labor Department seeks inspections to determine whether schools are ventilated and filtrated in order to adequately protect teachers, students, and staff from exposure to airborne SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Filed under the Public Employee Safety and Health Act (PESH), the complaint comes from 44 public school employees at nine campuses in Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan, but is based on conditions that appear to be prevalent throughout the New York City school system.  The gist of the complaint is that: 1) most school buildings are improperly ventilated, and 2) the Department of Education’s minimalistic ventilation standards do not prevent the spread of COVID-19, thus do not protect staff.

“The core concern is that most New York City’s schools are incubators rather than safe havens from Coronavirus,” stated PEER Staff Counsel Kevin Bell, noting the reliance on the “tissue test” to see if there is enough circulation to move a piece of toilet paper on a stick.  “New York’s education ventilation standards for schools are simply not designed for virus control.”

The complaint cites expert testimony that a room is not safe simply because some air can flow in and out, or has “operable” windows and exhaust fans, as the virus can linger in the air for hours and recirculate through traditional HVAC systems. This danger is not hypothetical. Media reports identify that more than 100 NYC school buildings have already reported at least one positive case per school by the first day of in-person instruction.

“State law guarantees that public employees will not be subjected to unsafe or unhealthy workplaces,” said EJI’s Joel Kupferman, noting some of the teachers wanted to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “State law also promises that public employees will not be punished for reporting unsafe conditions to the proper authorities.”

The complaint seeks that the state tests both the quantity and the quality of air moving throughout school facilities in order to determine the actual cubic feet per minute for both supply and return air for each room, as well as certification that the filtration systems are sufficient to screen out airborne virus particles. The legal standard is that unless New York can provide a place of employment free from the recognized hazard presented by SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, alternate provisions must be made for teachers and staff who cannot be provided a safe workplace.

Read the complaint

View the industrial hygienist’s report

The “tissue test” NYC schools use to assess ventilation

The “tissue test” NYC schools use to assess ventilation

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