As we all discuss how best to safely educate our children in this pandemic era, issues of school ventilation have gotten more attention than ever. Justifiably so.
Many old school buildings have outdated HVAC systems which may not provide the air flow and filtration recommended to prevent COVID-19.
When you overlay issues of environmental justice, this becomes even more concerning. We know that in Black, Brown and Indigenous communities, residents may be exposed to pollutants like diesel at three times the rate of other communities. This pollution is dangerous to children's developing lungs – diesel particulates are so small, they can enter our children's blood stream and damage lungs and other organs. They can also cause or exacerbate respiratory illnesses like asthma. Black children in particular have asthma rates nearly double those of non-Black children.
Until decision-makers take strong action to regulate pollutants, simply opening a window in many neighborhoods is not the solution.
This was certainly the case with the Harriet Tubman school. Situated above Interstate 5, freeway exhaust made classroom air profoundly unhealthy. Because of a new filtration system, the air at Tubman is now among the healthiest in the district. Clean air in our schools is possible.
How do we know about air quality crises like diesel and freeways? Air quality monitors and consistent testing have provided essential information to understand and then tackle the issues. PPS, however, has refused to release the findings of their own testing.
A path forward
To protect our children, we call upon PPS to release their testing results, along with evaluations of their HVAC systems. We will not be able to rest easy thinking that our children's education may come with real risks to their health.
We also call upon PPS to implement necessary changes in air handling ventilation systems. Ideally, all schools would have a layered system of high efficiency filters that treat both recirculated and outdoor ventilation air flows as well as HEPA filters in each classroom. That said, we acknowledge that each school is different. Windows don't open and the outside air may be harmful. While PPS has indicated that they've placed HEPA filters in the classrooms to be used, it's unclear if the electrical systems can allow for filters to extend throughout the schools. We therefore ask that PPS appoint a task force of experts in air filtration, virology and more to address the issue school-by-school. We cannot accept that some children will be protected while others will not.
We ask that the district hosts air monitors that provide real-time data about each school's air. Considering that this equipment, such as Purple Air monitors and CO2 sensors, can cost around $250 each, they can be easily sited at numerous schools and can pull double duty, educating students about the science of air monitoring.
Finally, we have an opportunity, thanks to Rep. Maxine Dexter, to see Oregon pass House Bill 2812, which would establish new regulations requiring publicly-funded buildings to have HVAC systems that can meet the risk that air pollution and viruses pose. It is crucial to protect people forced inside, whether because of smoke or the pandemic, or because they're in school. Oregon must ensure that our most vulnerable populations can take a safe, deep breath of air.
Our children, of course, deserve no less.
Rashelle Chase is an early childhood educator and a founder of Mxm BLOC. Mary Peveto is executive director of Neighbors for Clean Air. Dr. Elliot Gall is an assistant professor of mechanical and materials engineering at Portland State University.
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