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91% of classrooms have adequate ventilation, CPS says as debate continues on return during the pandemic

The district is spending $8.5 million on 20,000 air purifiers that are expected to go into every classroom.

A reminder to maintain social distance is posted at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior Academy of Social Justice library in Englewood.
A reminder to maintain social distance is posted at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior Academy of Social Justice library in Englewood.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Ventilation and air quality in the vast majority of Chicago Public Schools classrooms have been deemed safe for students and staff after district-wide inspections in recent weeks, officials said this week.

In an effort to prove its buildings can safely welcome back thousands of people during the ongoing pandemic, the school system said it conducted its own internal examinations of ventilation systems at all 500-plus district run schools and hired an outside, independent inspector to take air quality samples at those facilities.

The results showed 91% of nearly 20,000 classrooms have a functioning mechanical ventilation system and, of the ones that don’t, 8% have an operable window that can provide circulation, according to CPS. About 94% of total school spaces have a ventilation system or working window. The district vowed to get the remaining areas up to par and said nobody would occupy those rooms until they’re equipped with the necessary protections.

The district’s chief operating officer, Arnie Rivera, said CPS is spending $8.5 million on 20,000 air purifiers that are expected to go into every classroom. In classrooms that only have a window and no ventilation system, those purifiers would sufficiently keep the air clean so teachers don’t have to open windows during inclement weather, he said.

With CPS looking to bring back preschool and special education cluster program students sometime during the second quarter that starts Monday, the district said its facilities evaluations show there are more than enough safe classrooms for those children and their teachers to return to in-person school. Rivera declined to say if CPS is targeting a date for that return but said an announcement would be made “soon.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS officials have stressed the need for the system’s youngest students and those with the most challenging learning disabilities to attend in-person classes in order to have a quality education.

The conversation around returning to classrooms, however, comes as Chicago faces an astounding increase in COVID-19 infections. The city’s seven-day average cases rose to 1,395 Wednesday and test positivity was up to 10.9%.

Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said in July that Chicago would need to average 400 new daily COVID-19 cases or 8% test positivity over the span of a week, or otherwise see a dramatic spike in infections or hospitalizations for officials to reconsider their plans to reopen.

Nonetheless, Dr. Jennifer Seo, medical director of CDPH’s bureau of maternal, infant, child and adolescent health, said she’s confident CPS’ inspection findings mean schools are safe for reentry. Seo said the five most important factors to a safe reopening are universal masks, social distancing, hand washing, disinfecting of common areas and contact tracing — all of which she believes CPS has put in place.

“We are of course concerned at the Chicago Department of Public Health in the rising cases that we’re seeing across the city,” Seo said. “But what we continue to see is that transmission within schools and day cares is rare when the schools and day cares have implemented those five key mitigation strategies. So we feel that schools are able to and have been providing a safe environment for in-person learning.”

Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), a former school counselor and area vice president for the CTU, said she’s still skeptical about a return to schools in her ward where some buildings are more than 100 years old, the test positivity rate is at 19% and there’s a cluster program that serves kids with severe medical disabilities.

“I get it, there has to be a policy across the board, but we really have to look at what’s happening in individual parts of the city,” Sadlowski Garza said. “I’m worried. I don’t think it’s a good idea to go back right now.”

Still, as a former school worker, Sadlowski Garza said she recognizes the need for the youngest kids and special education students to receive in-person instruction.

Education committee chairman Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) said he too is worried about climbing coronavirus cases and what that means for a return to schools. Scott said CPS’ inspections were an encouraging sign.

The Chicago Teachers Union has strongly pushed back against a school reopening, especially under the current public health conditions. A month has passed since a labor grievance filed by the union over school clerks and tech coordinators ended with an arbitrator’s ruling that schools weren’t proven safe for work. CPS has not abided by that ruling.

Contributing: Fran Spielman