After Ventilation Blunder Derails Schools Reopening, District Scrambles to Restore Community’s Trust

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Since the South Orange-Maplewood School District made an abrupt U-turn with its plans to bring teachers and students back to classrooms in November after discovering a critical fix to ventilation systems was not completed, questions remain as to whether limited in-person learning would be able to safely resume in January.

Public schools in South Orange and Maplewood closed March 16 in an effort to stem transmission of the coronavirus that has so far killed more than 228,000 people in the United States and more than 16,000 New Jersey residents. Meanwhile, Maplewood and South Orange have seen a rise in positive COVID-19 tests this month, with Seton Hall University climbing to 48 total cases this week.

Last week, two days after plans to bring teachers back to the classroom on a voluntary basis were set to begin, Superintendent Ronald Taylor rescinded the edict, citing “a significant concern” about work that had been done in preparation for in-person instruction. Then, this week, many were taken aback when Taylor announced that in-person instruction would be postponed until January 19 after a walk-through of buildings found that window ventilation units that were believed to have been outfitted with high-quality air filters did not, in fact, have them.

Taylor said in his letter to the community that he had shared the information about the ventilation work being completed “after verification from our Facilities Department lead.” Taylor did not name the employee.

Business administrator Paul Roth and other SOMSD officials said that they could not address specifics as to how such an  oversight had occurred, citing personnel privacy laws. “Be assured that the school board and the superintendent are aware and things are being handled the way they’re supposed to,” he said.

But Roth did say that the school district had used guidelines from both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Health, as well as input from a community task force with more than 100 stakeholders, to create its own reopening plan.

“The district’s plan actually exceeds the standards in those guidance standards,” he said, noting that CDC and state guidance recommends moving fresh air into classrooms. “They don’t mandate additional filtration, but we don’t always go by minimum standards.”

SOMSD has now hired Kelin Heating & Air Conditioning of Colonia, New Jersey, to ensure that approximately 1,000 univents in classrooms throughout the school district are operational and outfitted with the highest-rated filters available, Roth said. Kelin was not previously involved in any of the district’s ventilation work, he added.

Going forward, Roth said, each and every room will be checked, along with the rooftop heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. “I’m not assuming anything was done right,” he added.

The vendor will perform a room-by-room assessment of the equipment, Roth said, adding that he hoped the process would wrap up next week. After that, SOMSD will order the necessary filters — a process that could take six weeks amid high demand for such safety equipment.

“It’s important for people to know we take these things seriously,” Roth added.

At the October 19 Board of Education meeting, Taylor unveiled a six-phase plan for moving from fully online learning to in-person classes. In his presentation, Taylor said that high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters had been installed in each classroom’s univent or air conditioner with a minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) rating of 16 — among the highest category of filters typically used in hospitals — and a MERV rating of 18 for rooftop ventilation systems. (Univents pull air in from the outside.)

Yet in the latest update to the SOMSD plan, Taylor revealed that the univents are only capable of using a filter with a MERV 8 rating.

“The District can and is improving ventilation according to CDC guidelines,” said SOMSD spokeswoman Anide Eustache, pointing to CDC guidance that recommends an increase in room ventilation, more fresh air, increased filtration and a reduction in recirculated air. The updating of filters in the HVAC system is “an enhancement but not a necessary component to our school reopening.”

Classroom univents pull air in from outside, so installing higher rated filters is not required. “However, the District committed to this work to go above and beyond standards. In addition…we can only upgrade the filters in our units based on the highest compatible MERV rating they can accommodate.”

Eustache noted that future repair and replacement of the district’s HVAC systems is a part of the planned district-wide construction improvement project.

Eustache also said the district is implementing many mitigation strategies to ensure safety, such as social distancing, use of face coverings or masks, encouraging good hygiene practices, handwashing, and cleaning and disinfection of spaces.

In addition, the district will be following an A/B cohort hybrid schedule “to ensure that building capacity remains at low occupancy.”

‘Eroded Trust’

“I think I can speak for the entire board and the administration that we can not accept duplicity,” said BOE President Annemarie Maini in an email. “The adults in the district must be examples for our students. We expect our students to be honest and try their hardest and to seek help when needed, and we must expect that from all the adults.”

Maini continued, “I also do not think that this level of duplicity is prevalent in our district. Our annual financial audits and the processes of our Business Administration, under Paul Roth, are passed with positive reviews from the auditors. The preparation and the community engagement in the plans for the construction and health and safety repairs was thoughtful and well received by the community.”

Maini praised the involvement of its reopening task force — which counts as members more than 100 health officials, building administrators, teachers and parents — in providing feedback on the SOMSD reopening plan.

Yet Maini also acknowledged that the setback had damaged the community’s faith in its school district. “I believe that all board members agree that this incident has eroded away at the trust in our community and that the administration and the board will need to continue to regain that trust,” she said.

Maini noted that the state Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC) self-evaluation period was approaching. The process focuses on monitoring and evaluating school districts in five key areas identified as critical to running effective school districts.

“We know that this attention to quality control is not a one-and-done exercise. This attention must seep into everything we do,” Maini said in the email. “This requires agreement on the metrics and what the terms mean, and an agreement among all working in the district that these metrics are important — and that attention to this quality is critical to be able to deliver a quality education for all children.”

Maini said that the full Board of Education has not yet met to discuss next steps following last week’s postponements.

Emphasizing that she was speaking for herself, Maini said that she expected the board to work with the administration “to evaluate whether we have this attention to quality in-house or whether we need to seek outside support, with the goal of building our capacity as an organization to have a focus on quality in everything we do.”

Board member Anthony Mazzocchi reiterated comments he made at the BOE meeting regarding ventilation. “I’ve been very vocal about what I see as being acceptable and safe, and that is far more than basic HVAC requirements,” he said. “This also has to be a holistic approach that utilizes space, student class size, time and creative scheduling. … That’s the work that must be done.”

Mazzocchi, who serves as director of the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University, served on the Arts Ed NJ task force that developed a 126-page guide to holding in-person arts instruction in a safe manner. The recommendations include physical distancing, the use of quality face masks and the creative use of outdoor spaces to avoid COVID-19 transmission. MSU’s music program has not seen any COVID-19 cases. 

Board members Elizabeth Baker, Robin Baker, Erin Siders and Kamal Zubieta did not respond to requests for comment, while Shannon Cuttle and Thair Joshua said they would defer to Maini’s remarks. Board member Johanna Wright said she would respond as soon as she is able.

BOE Hopefuls Weigh In

The Village Green emailed questions to the six candidates vying for three seats on the Board of Education, asking their concerns about the reopening plan and what they would like to see happening now.

Elissa Malespina said that, as a former SOMSD employee, she had seen the BOE swing between two approaches toward oversight. “Some boards try to micromanage everything, paralyzing administration. Others, like the majority of our current board, take an extremely hands-off approach, exchanging oversight for blind trust. Clearly both of these strategies have proven ineffective,” she wrote via email. She said that Board should set goals and targets for the superintendent, ask questions, demand answers and do so in a public forum as much as legally and ethically possible. “We need to understand exactly what happened and understand what steps the district is taking to address these issues. The BOE, teachers, and parents deserve clear answers and should be invited to tour the buildings to see that they are safe.”

Deborah Engel expressed a desire to see Taylor “succeed and stay,” adding that “we need consistency at the top of our administration to help regain trust after years and years of turnover.” Before Taylor was hired last year, the school district went through a series of superintendents and interims over the past several years.

Engel also said she would like to understand how the administration was soliciting feedback from teachers and parents and called for greater transparency around the decision-making process. “We clearly have communications issues, and we need to figure out how to fix them to ensure our teachers are nurtured and listened to, to earn back trust from parents, to ensure there is consistency across all our schools, and to ensure we are not leaving any of our students behind.”

Echoing what some sitting board members have said, Engel would like to see more creativity around the use of outdoor space and “safe” indoor space, as well as additional details about what a hybrid learning model would look like, and she called for solutions for students with individualized education programs (IEPs). “My primary concern with the plan right now is that I’m not sure there is a plan, or if there is, what it is,” Engel wrote.

Melanie Finnern also expressed a desire to avoid the past decade’s revolving door of superintendents. “Whether or not you agree that this is the right time to open schools or not, I think the community is tired of the ongoing missteps, lack of communication and inability of our school district to get on top of operating effectively,” she wrote. 

Finnern emphasized that the BOE’s role is “to make sure that the district is well run and to effectively manage its one employee…Unfortunately, the current BOE majority has clearly decided that the board’s role is to take a backseat during this unprecedented time versus taking an active role in its oversight responsibilities for the most critical initiative of the 20/21 school year.”

“The next iteration of the plan must be flawless in the things the district can control,” she wrote. “The BOE must take a more active role in accountability, but until then, it is incumbent on the administration to find tools to measure the loss of learning impact and find ways to support our students both academically and with social-emotional supports as we head into a Winter poised to increase social isolation.”

Running mates Susan Bergin and Courtney Winkfield responded jointly with a statement: “This moment is testing us, as a community and a school district. The board will need to monitor the district’s progress towards readying the schools for reopening closely,” they wrote. “The board can take this opportunity to incorporate goals related to reopening in the district’s annual facilities goal. As the district implements its action plan, the board will need to verify that the goals have, in fact, been fulfilled.”

YMCA Childcare Has Led to No Cases of COVID-19

Some parents had questioned how the South Mountain YMCA, which has been providing in-person childcare in the district since the spring, was able to do so safely while the district could not. Executive Director James Goodger said it was because of robust health guidelines in its Health and Safety Measures Playbook, strict hygiene practices, a supply of personal protective equipment, foggers, cleaning equipment — and the fact that there are only 232 students spread out over five district locations, utilizing large spaces such as gymnasiums and cafeterias wherever possible.
“We have constant trainings, reminders and meetings” to review safety guidelines, he said, adding the Y has been able to operate since the beginning of the pandemic without a single case of COVID-19. “We want to be transparent and let parents know what we’re doing,” he said.
“School enrollment will be significantly higher than the current Y program enrollment,” said Eustache. “When schools reopen, enrollment will be about 300 elementary school students in addition to teachers and staff.”

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