Aging HVAC systems in schools add to parents’ concerns about in-classroom learning

VIDEO: Some students return to the classroom

The slowly improving coronavirus situation has some school districts returning to in-classroom learning. That’s starting for some special needs students in the Issaquah School District on Sept. 29 and all elementary students a few weeks later.

Many parents in the Issaquah School District are anxious about sending their kids back to the classroom. Some say they won’t be doing that anytime soon. Their concerns range from safety to quality of education.

The district’s goal is to have some form of in-person learning for kindergartners and first graders Oct. 15. Older elementary school students will follow.

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“I’m definitely not sending my child back to school at this point. There’s no way,” Lindeman said. “It feels like our youngest are being used as guinea pigs,” he said.

In a memo to parents, the school district said the return to the classroom is based on a “decision tree” from the Washington State Department of Health, which says districts in the moderate category of 25-75 cases per 100k people over 14 days can “consider expanding in-person learning to elementary students.”

But top of parents' concerns includes the transmission of COVID among students and teachers, and how schools can ensure young students will stay six feet apart while wearing PPE.

They also worry that their kids just adjusted to remote learning and will now need to readjust to a hybrid model, possibly with a different teacher.

There’s another concern about how safe classrooms are given the aging HVAC systems in some schools. The CDC has recommended proper ventilation and airflow to reduce COVID transmission risks.

“Knowing there’s no HEPA filtration, there’s no modern filtration in most of these buildings, that’s absolutely part of the concern,” Lindeman said. He also shared his concerns in a private Facebook group for Issaquah parents.

Maple Hills Elementary was set to get a full HVAC replacement this summer. But COVID delayed construction progress and those replacement plans to 2021.

An email KIRO7 obtained sent from the district’s chief of finance and operations to a parent said in part:

“The current system and systems around the district provide sufficient airflow (according to HVAC experts).”

For some parents, that’s not enough.

“What experts? Give me the experts. Give me the people — I want to see the people whose information we’re supposed to go off of,” Lindeman said.

Indoor air quality expert and CEO of “Senseware” -- a company that makes air monitoring technology -- says schools nationwide have bad HVAC systems.

“In fact, the Government Accountability Office released a report in June that said that over half of the schools in the country need major upgrades, naming HVAC specifically to be high on the list,” said Serene Al-Momen, Ph.D., CEO of Senseware.

The Washington, D.C. based company says now they’re starting to work with school districts to help figure out how a building might need adjusting, and it’s a cost that can be covered by federal stimulus funding, specifically available for schools.

“A lot of schools don’t know that part of the stimulus package is that funding is available for the to upgrade that infrastructure. So there is the ESER funding specifically available for schools,” Al-Momen said.

Parents say tech companies might be part of the answer to getting kids back to the classroom safely, but that time isn’t here yet.

“We’re three weeks into the school year, and we’re going to jump ship because there is a slight improvement? I say we get real improvement, and maybe we can revisit this after winter break when things have really calmed down,” Lindeman said.

The Issaquah School District did not make anyone available to address the parents' concerns in time for this story.