SF schools wrestle with clean air and failing infrastructure

Parents, unions calling for more resources to keep everyone safe

San Francisco public schools fast-tracked $2.9 million to equip all classrooms with air purifiers this week, but families and unions say more needs to be done to combat air quality during wildfire season.

The purchase order unanimously approved by the school board on Tuesday would yield an estimated 3,750 portable air cleaners, which is enough for all classrooms but not all offices. Another round of funding will likely be needed later this fall as electrical capacity and administrative offices are prepared, staff said. These purchases will build on the 775 purifiers already in about 10 percent of San Francisco Unified School District classrooms.

“Our first priority is classrooms,” said Dawn Kamalanathan, SFUSD chief facilities officer, at Tuesday’s board meeting. “It does not cover our anticipated need.”

Kamalanathan added that it’s likely some classrooms will not have received purifiers by September, when she expects there will be another funding request to the board, as well as contracts to maintain filter replacements. Surveys must still be completed to make plans around sizing, electrical capacity, and needs.

There is also the question of which schools are prioritized to receive the purifiers, given some areas are hit harder by coronavirus and some schools have more pressing infrastructure needs. Kamalanathan said logistics would be more clear in the next week or two and there are plans to request assistance from The City in distributing the purifiers quicker.

SFUSD scrambled to provide air purifiers as the school year began amid an increase in coronavirus cases driven by the delta variant, a situation compounded by wildfire smoke. The expedited approval, partly funded by the district’s COVID-19 reserve, came after growing concerns from families and school staff over ventilation.

“Before COVID, we complained about the lack of ventilation (and) the district did nothing,” said Bernice Casey, parent of a Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 Community School student, on Tuesday before the board vote. “We complained about poor wiring, the district did nothing. Twenty-two children and one teacher are in a class with very poor ventilation. Please do something.”

Opening windows provides a key defense against coronavirus, but closing them is needed when wildfires bring bad air quality. Coronavirus safety guidelines from the Department of Public Health recommend that schools close windows when wildfire smoke is in the air and noted that portable air cleaners “can be helpful.” It’s unclear to district stakeholders how many classrooms rely on windows for ventilation.

The issue has highlighted infrastructure shortcomings in a district with several old buildings and outdated electrical and ventilation systems. SFUSD is simultaneously responding to today’s emergency and modernizing school sites for the future.

“We need a short-term solution and we need a long-term plan,” said school board member Alison Collins. “That’s going to take federal dollars. It can’t just be left for individual districts to prioritize it. Having no standard is unacceptable.”

Collins said she and school board President Gabriela Lopez intend to bring forward a resolution around the timeline for classrooms to have portable air cleaners, as well as addressing issues such as masks and testing.

Other board members expressed concern over ventilation, with Vice President Faauuga Moliga noting that capital planning is underway for a bond measure in November 2022. Ongoing maintenance costs for the new fleet of equipment will also have to be accounted for during the budget process next year.

In the meantime, United Educators of San Francisco, a labor union, is calling for K-N95 masks, surveillance testing, generators and a district-wide assessment of facilities. UESF plans on continuing to make demands at a rally next Tuesday evening.

“It sounds like a first step toward something we’ve been advocating for since the summer,” said UESF President Cassondra Curiel. “We’re going to continue to push to find the money to get the things we need. I’m sure the district wants this too.”

For those looking to help fund solutions to these problems, SFUSD is not taking donations of air purifiers due to specific criteria like sturdiness and voltage needed to be suitable in a classroom. The district is accepting monetary donations through its fundraising arm Spark* SF Public Schools (https://www.sparksfpublicschools.org/) but does not have an official campaign for air purifiers.

imojadad@sfexaminer.com

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