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  • Writer's pictureMike Zilles

NTA EBulletin September 20, 2020

The Newton School Committee voted to approve Superintendent Fleishman's "Return to Learning Plan" on August 26, just five days before educators were scheduled to return to a ten day planning period, and twenty-one days prior to the return of students. They effectively created an artificial deadline, the consequences of which we are all grappling with right now.  I am hearing dismaying stories of how ill-prepared the district is, and how much the burden of this ill-preparedness is falling on educators in all of our units: A, B, C, D, and E. Staffing shortages, rigid and unreasonable expectations for special educators, supply shortages, scheduling confusion, and the ubiquitous answer to so many questions: "we don't know yet."  Last Friday, we learned of another "we don't know yet" that is simply unacceptable. That morning, Boston Mechanical, the company the district contracts with to maintain its HVAC systems, sent two technicians to analyze the airflow, air exchange, and fresh air introduction in twelve rooms in four buildings: Lincoln-Eliot, Ward, and Franklin elementary schools and the Newton Early Childhood Program. Chris Walsh accompanied them to three of these four buildings, and kept records of their measurements. What we learned is that the district truly does not know the condition of its ventilation system. The data this testing produced is very concerning. What the district doesn't know is what the ostrich doesn't know when it sticks its head in the sand: there is danger all around.  A little background: The School Committee offered to do this testing as a response to our demand at the bargaining table that the district hire an independent outside contractor to test the ventilation systems in the Newton Public schools. Their idea was to "spot test" a number of rooms and show us that they had done their homework. Apparently, they believed that this sample inspection of twelve rooms in four buildings would turn out just fine, since they had, as they claimed, "evaluated, adjusted, and performed preventative maintenance on every piece of HVAC equipment in the district." (From District Fact Sheet on Facilities) It did not. In four of the twelve rooms tested, the system was not meeting minimal ASHRAE industry standards for how much fresh air should be circulated in the rooms. Five rooms hovered at or slightly above the standard. In two rooms, while the systems were meeting minimal requirements, the unit ventilators were malfunctioning. None of the room ventilators achieved the extraordinary level of performance the district claims their systems typically achieve: 

  • "Based on our (general) classroom size, the Unit Ventilators provide up to 1000 CFM (Cubic Feet per Minute) of air to the room. This value must be tempered by the fact that the units are not airtight, so we use 900 CFM as a baseline. The required outdoor air requirement is 256 CFM for an 800 square foot room. This indicates we are introducing up to three times the amount of outdoor air than is required by ASHRAE" (From Fact Sheet on Facilities).

But not only are the tests results very poor, and very concerning, they do not tell the whole story! First, accurate testing requires that technicians measure airflow coming into the unit ventilator from the outside and airflow blowing out of the unit ventilator into the room. This allows a technician to get an accurate reading of how much air blowing into the room is fresh, and how much is recirculated. For six of the rooms tested, the technicians did not test outside air coming into the unit ventilator because they did not have a ladder high enough to reach the rooms. The substitute methodology they followed in those rooms increased on average the percentage of fresh air they reported as introduced into the room, inflating the overall calculation. It is quite likely that at least two or three more of the rooms also would not achieve ASHRAE standards under more precise testing protocols. That brings the likely number of rooms that do not meet the standard to six or seven. Second, the testing only assessed airflow with dampers open for allowing in the maximum amount of fresh air; Boston Mechanical did not test for conditions when the dampers would be partially closed, as they will be during heating seasons.  The district states as much in its fact sheet: "The amount of outdoor air brought in by the unit is diminished when the unit must heat the room (winter conditions)."

Why didn't they also test the air under these conditions? We don't know. In any case, when the heating is turned on, this will significantly reduce the amount of outside air introduced into the classrooms, so much so that probably ten of the rooms will not meet the standard. Fortunately, right now, in the early fall, when windows can remain open, enough fresh air can be introduced into classrooms to mitigate these shortcomings. This will no longer be true once the district must heat rooms.  (For this reason, I would recommend that elementary and preschool classroom teachers send an email home to parents stating something like this: 

  • For safety, in order to maintain adequate fresh air circulation, I will be keeping the windows open late into the fall season. Please ensure that your child comes dressed appropriately. Additionally, mask breaks and snack will take place outside, rain or shine, so umbrellas and raincoats are recommended. 

You will need to keep your windows open, with fans in them running, for as long as possible.) Quite the contrary to what the School Committee hoped would come of this spot testing, it presents compelling evidence that the district must hire an outside firm that specializes in measurement and verification of outside airflow immediately. While this work should have been done over the summer, it must begin it now. The NPS must check every room in the Newton Public Schools, and do the necessary mitigation to bring the air exchange up to minimal standards, and it is critical that this work be done before the heating season begins.  If the district is not prepared to do this outside assessment, the NTA is currently in the process, under our rights under Massachusetts General Law 150e, of hiring a reputable firm to do the evaluation ourselves. It will be expensive. But we cannot sit on our hands while the health and safety of staff and students hang in the balance.  Click on Image above to report health and safety concerns in your building. Of course we asked the School Committee for a response to these test results in negotiations on Friday afternoon. After a long caucus, they read a statement stating that staff in the four rooms below standard should keep all windows open over the next few days and that the district had already ordered the parts to fix the problem. Then, Saturday night at 7:00, the district sent out this attached email from Liam Hurley, NPS CFO, to staff and families, stating that the necessary repairs in these rooms would be completed over the weekend.  The number of misrepresentations is quite astonishing. These are from the first paragraph:

  • Liam states that NPS "has been working to develop a facilities maintenance and modification plan that creates safer and healthier buildings."

    • Actually, the district has repeatedly claimed to have already done this.

  • He states that: "to this end, on Friday, September 18, 2020, an outside air balancing contractor conducted spot checks.

    • The district brought this contractor in to perform these tests because the School Committee was under pressure from the NTA. It was not part of ongoing work. 

    • The contractor was not conducting spot checks, which creates the perception that this is ongoing and routine. Moreover, Liam leaves open the impression that a larger number of rooms were tested than in fact were tested. 

    • While technically Boston Mechanical is from outside, they are the district's regular HVAC contractor that performs maintenance on their buildings. NPS certainly did not go to an independent contractor that specializes in this area.

  • Liam characterizes Lincoln-Eliot, Franklin, Ward, and NECP as four of the district's oldest buildings.

    • The unit ventilators in Lincoln-Eliot were replaced around five years ago, so it is misnomer to lump this building in with the rest. It is also the only building where all three rooms met standards, yet of the three units tested, two were malfunctioning. 

  • "The initial results confirmed that the unit ventilators are functioning and in most cases, are meeting or exceeding our expectations for airflow, air exchange, and fresh air introduction."

    • The district states in its documents that their expectations for airflow, air exchange, and fresh air introduction are three times the ASHRAE standard. No room came close to this; four rooms did not meet the standard, five rooms hovered near the standard, and only three met the standard easily. I am baffled beyond belief at the idea that this confirms anything but that they have failed miserably to meet their responsibilities.

    • The district has repeatedly claimed that over the summer they tested the ventilation in every room in every building. Yet, the district does not seem to find it concerning that in a test of a small sample of rooms, one third are found to be performing below minimal standards, and that probably nine or ten out of the twelve rooms tested will not have sufficient fresh air when the heating systems are turned on. 

  • No issues were identified at Lincoln-Eliot.

    • There were issues in two out of the three rooms tested.

In the email, Liam goes on to discuss the work that will be done over the weekend to repair the ventilation where it was not up standards. But we do not know what that work entailed, and we have doubts that we will ever see independent test results to show that the problems have in fact been mitigated.  He says that his "facilities team will use portable testing equipment to test, evaluate, and perform targeted motor and fan assembly replacements in unit ventilators at all elementary schools."  We do not know who the "facilities team" is that he is talking about here. What we know is that they have proven themselves untrustworthy to do this work themselves and report honestly and accurately the results. They have neither the skills nor the integrity for the task. Liam says the district "will continue to partner with the air balancing contractor to test unit ventilators throughout the district to confirm that existing equipment is operating as effectively as possible and to ensure that our targeted repair and maintenance efforts are having the desired effect. We will provide all testing results, as well as a record of maintenance and repair actions on a regular basis."  Boston Mechanical is not a "balancing contractor," it will not provide independent results and data. The district must hire a truly independent contractor to do this work if the data is to be trusted. This week, the NTA will be back at the Department of Labor Relations to attempt to mediate our charge that NPS has failed to respond to our request for information. We have been asking all summer for the data that Liam Hurley states will be freely available going forward.  In fact, NPS has been claiming all along that they have already tested all of their equipment. Clearly, they have not. And clearly, based on a deadline that the School Committee has imposed upon all of us, they intend to go forward with opening the schools for in person learning even when they are unprepared to do so. They have no data. And the emperor has no clothes. What is different, I hope, is that now the members of the School Committee can no longer say they didn't know. Because this administration has not only been withholding information from us; it has falsely represented to the entire Newton community, including the members of the School Committee, that it has created safe and well-ventilated schools. It has not. It must. This School Committee must do its job. It must hold this administration accountable. I am convinced that if Chris Walsh had not been present at this testing, we would have never learned the results, except through the sort of "spin" that is represented in Liam Hurley's email. Every member of the Newton Teachers Association, and the entire Newton community, owes her a debt of gratitude for her willingness to dig into the deep weeds and intricacies of HVAC in order to ensure our schools have safe and fresh air. Even more importantly, we owe her a debt of gratitude for her tenacious and tremendous advocacy on our behalf. I know I personally, in my role as President of this Association, would be lost without her.  Thank you Chris.

"Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose." Please take care and stay well. Mike  



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