To vent or not to vent? Coronavirus and wildfires create window dilemma for SF schools

‘It’s a pretty frustrating situation’

San Francisco schools face a troubling paradox this fall. And it’s all about the windows.

We know that ventilation is a key factor in battling coronavirus. So, keep the windows open, right? But when unhealthy wildfire smoke comes calling, those same portals need to close.

So, what are schools supposed to do as the new academic year is about to begin?

Updated guidance from the San Francisco Department of Public Health simply recommends closing windows and continuing other coronavirus precautions, particularly face masks. Schools can remain open even if windows are closed and portable air cleaners “can be helpful,” health officials said.

With schools returning to full, in-person capacity, robust distancing isn’t an option. And reopening comes as San Francisco is facing a booming coronavirus case rate due to the highly contagious Delta variant.

If the smoke situation in The City gets bad, you have a two-prong problem: Students and staff will be trapped inside a closed-off classroom to avoid the smoke, which increases the potential for coronavirus to spread.

The conundrum has added urgency to questions surrounding how to prepare school facilities and create plans, like smoke day closures, around climate disruptions San Francisco has come to expect. But with San Francisco Unified School District launching the school year in-person on Aug. 16 and the Dixie Fire — now the second-largest in California history — threatening air quality, there’s little time left to implement solutions for the twin crises of today.

Sophie Rich, an SFUSD parent in the Sunset District, said she’s already “very anxious” about sending her vaccinated high schooler to class with the highly contagious Delta variant dominating headlines. Add the window closures in the face of wildfire smoke and it doesn’t instill confidence in her for a safe learning environment.

“That’s obviously not ok with an elementary school full of unvaccinated kids,” Rich said. “I don’t know how we cannot be talking about the need to put air purifiers in every single classroom. It’s a pretty frustrating situation and I don’t know what there is to be done at this point because we’re going back next week.”

Some educators can agree. Jennifer Moless, a first-grade teacher at Junipero Serra Elementary School, is happy to go back but feels that the same safety precautions, such as full-time nurses and cohorts at each school, should’ve remained in place for the fall. Since SFUSD schools reopened in April, just seven cases were reported.

Public health officials have long assured parents and school staff that children are significantly less of a risk factor than adults but the number of pediatric hospitalizations due to Covid have steadily climbed since early July, the New York Times reported. Children under 12 years old are not yet eligible for the vaccines.

“Personally, I am terrified that it’s going to become a super spreader event during the wildfires,” Moless said. “Critically, I believe this is something The City could’ve chosen to fund in the last budget cycle. We can now assume that (wildfires) are going to happen and part of getting ready for climate change is having a plan.”

As of early July, SFUSD distributed more than 240 portable air cleaners to elementary schools for classrooms without operable windows, which accounts for about 10 percent of all classrooms in the district. The district planned to install several hundred more by Aug. 16 but was unable to provide an updated number in time for publication.

However, SFUSD infrastructure is not prepared for portable air cleaners in every classroom. Many buildings are dated, but run computers, refrigerators, copy machines, projectors, and other school equipment that require energy.

“Some SFUSD school site buildings may not be able to support the power requirements of widespread portable air cleaner deployment,” said Laura Dudnick, an SFUSD spokesperson. “If the portable air cleaners at school sites function without interrupting other functions, SFUSD will pursue a larger scale procurement of portable air cleaners to offset the impacts of poor air quality caused by wildfires.”

That’s not the case for some private schools like Covenant and Stuart Hall, a Sacred Heart school in Pacific Heights. In preparation for in-person instruction last summer staff upgraded their HVAC system, added air purifiers and UV sanitizers knowing it would serve a lasting purpose. Plans began to take shape two years ago in face of the wildfires but were expedited due to the pandemic.

“There’s a reason why we did the upgrades we did,” said Geoff De Santis, the school’s strategic design facilitator. “A lot of schools on high air pollutant days were closing. Knowing that, our buildings are set up in a way that definitely provides a way healthier environment than a student being at home without any filtration system.”

SFUSD appears unprepared for a reality that existed pre-pandemic — and that state funding has contributed to unaddressed infrastructure challenges — is a source of contention from those who say a long-term solution is needed. Moless noted that educators have asked about air quality upgrades since the fires took hold and again since the pandemic began.

Frank Lara, executive vice president for the United Educators of San Francisco, agrees that the air purifiers overloading dated SFUSD buildings is a real issue. They are pushing the district to assess buildings for air quality so officials can demand the resources needed to keep students and staff safe.

Lara also called for conversation around smoke days, which is tricky considering the situation must be declared a state emergency in order for the district to not be financially penalized for lack of attendance. But virtual learning opens up a new possibility. The former Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8 Community School teacher recalled wondering why, in November 2018 when San Francisco’s air quality had the worst air quality in the world, staff and students were still forced to be in smoky buildings?

“We can’t just expect people to choke in classrooms,” Lara said. “It’s hard because folks don’t have the capacity to address this wildfire season. It has to be a load carried by society, by government.”

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