As classes start, air conditioning and filters fail in DC public schools
Students and teachers across the District are facing challenges with the return to classrooms. Of them, stakeholders have raised high alarm about heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) units breaking down. To combat the 80-degree classrooms, parents are volunteering in a variety of ways.
After watching a few YouTube videos, one parent learned how to construct a cheap air filter. The device forms a cube with four everyday air filters, a window fan, duct tape, and some cardboard. The structure mirrors the function of a high-efficiency particulate absorbing (HEPA) filter, with the purpose of sucking air in and filtering it before sending it back out.
Peter Krupa has raised over $5,600 in the past month through GoFundMe (tinyurl.com/DIY-air-filter) to build and deliver 47 filters across DCPS. The filters cost about $100 to make, and volunteers have helped deliver them to schools across all Wards. Krupa said he relies on Twitter to reach volunteers and spread awareness.
Krupa can provide this service because he works as a freelance translator, which gives him a flexible schedule, he said. Parents who don’t have the ability to volunteer their time must rely on the Department of General Services (DGS) to supply air filters for learning spaces. This creates a large inequity across DCPS, D.C. Councilmember Christina Henderson’s spokesperson Amanda Farnan said.
“It [money] shouldn’t affect a school’s education; however, now we’re just seeing it more,” Farnan said. Seeing how different schools are able to fund solutions to creating an environment that prevents the spread of COVID-19 brings light to the disparity among access to resources, she said.
Krupa said he and other volunteers make it a priority to deliver filters to schools in all eight wards, but the demand is too high for him to keep up with. After about five weeks of making filters, Krupa has decided to stop operations.
Aside from HEPA filters, multiple schools have tried creating outdoor spaces for students to eat their lunch. The CDC says the best way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 is spending time outdoors. This requires parents to volunteer as supervisors, which some schools are seeing. But for many parents, going to their child’s school in the middle of the day is not an option as it disrupts their workday.
If this idea had been proposed earlier in the summer, schools would have been able to prepare their outdoor spaces by finding volunteers and ordering outdoor furniture, which is now on backorder, Farnan said.
The timing of preparing DCPS for students’ return to classes could have prevented many of the issues they are now facing, councilmember Robert White Jr. said. White said he feels frustrated with how things are being handled.
“Our systems shouldn’t be failing in the first place,” he said of the broken HVAC units. “It creates an unsafe learning environment and it is not a new issue.” White said he has been “pressing DGS for years” on the quality of HVAC units.
To track the work orders of HVAC units, HEPA filters and other issues, Jonah Goodman, an advisory neighborhood commissioner (ANC) for Ward 4, proposed creating a dashboard that will provide live updates. The proposal called on DGS to coordinate with DCPS to create a functional system for work orders to be logged and tracked. Goodman said he hopes that a dashboard will bring more awareness of what issues are in schools and hold DGS accountable.
The resolution (tinyurl.com/ANC-Filter-Resolution) passed and is now waiting for action. Goodman is saying he hopes the production of the site will be worked into the fiscal year budget starting next October, since the deadline for FY 2022 has already passed.
Goodman said he had heard about Krupa’s service and other parents stepping up to volunteer. While he said it’s inspiring to hear, Goodman said the reality of the situation is that the system has failed.
“It’s not an air conditioner issue,” he said. “This is a holistic issue that’s failed our schools.”