2021 | Schools

Parents at elementary school in Chevy Chase raise COVID-19 concerns because classroom windows don’t open

MCPS says HVAC system provides adequate filtration

Somerset Elementary School

Photo from MCPS

As thousands of Montgomery County students head back to school buildings for the first time in a year, some families are worried because classroom windows don’t open.

Experts tout open windows as a key method to improve air flow and reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

At Somerset Elementary School in Chevy Chase, at least 16 rooms have windows that don’t open, according to several parents and teachers in the school.

It’s not a new problem — a record of unfilled maintenance requests relating to the windows dates back nearly a decade — but there’s a new sense of urgency as in-person classes begin.

“I understand the mindset for the past nine-plus years of, ‘Well, you know, this isn’t that big of an issue and we’ve got a lot of other things to deal with, so we’re just gonna keep kicking it down the line,’ but over the last year that’s inexcusable,” parent Matthew Zaft said. “When kids were sent home last year, at that point, it should have been front and center.”

In a statement, MCPS spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala wrote that MCPS has made upgrades to Somerset’s HVAC systems to meet “the increased levels that are called for.”

Because COVID-19 is an airborne virus, enhanced ventilation and air filtering is critical to mitigating transmission when people are indoors, along with distancing and wearing face coverings, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

CDC guidance says “even just cracking open a window” is beneficial, unless doing so poses a safety or health risk.

Without fresh air entering a room, contaminants can continue to circulate.

In its statement, MCPS wrote that “the guidance regarding opening windows in schools is related to a national issue of aging infrastructure in public schools.”

“Much of the focus on opening windows in schools is due to insufficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) in classrooms in other systems,” the statement said. “This is not the case here in MCPS.”

Somerset Elementary School was built in 1949 and last renovated in 2005.

Zaft’s child will attend classes in rooms with windows that can open, but if she were in an affected room, she would stay virtual, he said.

But he is concerned about the entire school community’s safety, and said it’s not equitable to have some students in classrooms with functioning windows and others in rooms without.

“MCPS likes to throw out the term ‘equitable’ a lot, to the point of, ‘You can’t do this because it’s not equitable, because all of the other schools can’t do it, too,’” Zaft said. “That’s fine if that’s your stance, but then how is it equitable for these kids to not have functioning windows when most of the rest in MCPS are functioning. You can’t have it both ways.”

MCPS’ school reopening plan says classrooms will “have a sufficient air exchange without opening classroom windows,” but because research suggests opening windows can be beneficial, “it may be recommended to open windows to supplement current strategies.”

The guidance goes on to say people should not be worried if windows do not open, or if classrooms don’t have windows at all.

“The ability to open a window does not necessarily benefit you or your students,” it says. “While an open window does increase ventilation, it can also cause problems by allowing dust, pollen, and other irritants to enter the room.”

The Healthy Buildings program recommends four to six air exchanges per hour in classrooms, using any combination of ventilation (like open windows) and filtration.

An online data dashboard maintained by MCPS shows that Somerset has the highest rating for its ventilation system, meaning its equipment provides “outside air to individual classrooms and support staff workspaces.” The dashboard says air filters and cleaners have been installed in the school, but no additional information is provided.

Prior to schools reopening, the Montgomery County teachers union asked the school district to release data about air exchange rates for every room in every school, but MCPS declined.

Superintendent Jack Smith reiterated in an interview at the time that rooms children and staff are in will “meet or exceed” standards.

“While I cannot tell you we will provide the specific air quality in room A as opposed to room B, what we can certify is that we have done all of the work that is recommended and set out as the standard by which the buildings should be operating, so it’s optimal for people to go in them in this pandemic,” Smith said.

On a frequently asked questions page about school ventilation, MCPS wrote that people can’t get an air quality report about a classroom because facility information “is technical in nature and long considered to be confidential as it provides details of our school buildings.”

As of Friday afternoon, nearly 500 people had signed an online petition demanding MCPS fix the windows.

In its statement, MCPS wrote that officials are “fully prepared to support the cost of fixing the windows,” but the parts needed “are not readily available and must be designed specifically for this situation.”

“MCPS has been actively working with the manufacturer to resolve this issue and meet with the manufacturer representative to identify what steps they can take to customize a replacement part that will function properly,” the statement said. “The replacement part is the main component of the window’s operational function and must be engineered to the window’s allowable jamb space, attachment points, and assembly weight.”

A timeline for a resolution was not provided.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com