Category Archives: Schools

Benicia School District responds to tough questions about clean air controls during the pandemic

How good are the Benicia Schools’ HVAC Systems?

By Roger Straw, March 16, 2021

On February 26, a Benicia resident asked an intriguing question on Nextdoor:

How good are the Benicia Schools HVAC systems? Before we expel school board members and chop up the teachers union, how up – to date & how well maintained our our school’s hvac systems?  If it costs approx $300,000 to recall a board member can we put that money into upgrading the schools’ hvac systems and hiring more janitors instead?

The Nextdoor question had obvious political implications, with which, incidentally, I agree wholeheartedly.  Our school infrastructure, supplies and services for teachers and students are so important.  The recent effort to attack and unseat two BUSD trustees is ridiculously expensive ($300,000!) and the recall is also misguided in intent, targeting two fine Trustees, including the School Board President.  EVERYONE please DO NOT SIGN THE RECALL PETITION!

But… what stood out to me was the opening question, “How good are the Benicia Schools HVAC systems?”

I wondered if anyone has a good answer to that question.  A little research uncovered that Benicia’s 2014 Ballot Measure S included significant provisions for upgrading the District’s HVAC systems.

So I dug around and found that I could write to Roxanne Egan, the Bond Director for Benicia Unified School District.

I emailed Ms. Egan some tough questions, and got a thorough response.  Here is my opening contextual statement and my four questions:

Given the pandemic guidelines’ strong call for good ventilation and heating/AC in schools before returning to in-person learning, I would like to know some details:

      1. What has been done to improve BUSD HVAC systems since passage of Measure S in 2014?
      2. What improvements have been made to BUSD HVAC systems in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
      3. Has the BUSD received specific federal and state guidance on HVAC recommendations and requirements in order to provide safe space as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, and if so, what are those recommendations and requirements?
      4. In what particulars are BUSD schools up to HVAC standards proposed by the CDC and the CA Department of Health, and in what particulars are we still deficient?

Ms. Egan and directors of several other BUSD departments were thorough in gathering information that would address my questions.  I received a two-page letter from Ms. Egan and Alfredo Romero, Director of Maintenance and Operations on March 11.  After the opening thank you, Egan and Romero answered each question, beginning with the first:

What has been done to improve BUSD HVAC systems since passage of Measure S in 2014?

      • Measure S has funded HVAC improvements including the replacement of over 28 HVAC units, service and repairs to existing HVAC units, upgrades to HVAC economizers, which are the mechanical assembly that responds to the thermostat “demand” to allow fresh air intake. In addition to Measure S funding, BUSD received State Proposition 39 funding through the California Energy Commission for qualified energy improvements which included thermostat upgrades at all schools. The upgraded thermostats provide the ability to remotely access the thermostats including the ability to monitor fresh air intake and allow maintenance operators to increase and decrease the fresh air minimums based on ambient conditions. The minimums for fresh air intake are consistent with state building codes and during the COVID-19 pandemic, these minimums may be exceeded to introduce a larger amount of fresh air.
BUSD letter on HVAC improvements, March 11, 2021

The letter goes on like this.  I find it on the one hand reassuring, but on the other, rather general and couched in technical language that leaves me wondering.  I’m guessing the public might still have questions.  Please read the whole letter, and see if you agree.

READ THE LETTER from Roxanne Egan, Bond Director, and Alfredo Romero, Director of Maintenance and Operations, March 11, 2021.

Questions?

If not for the pandemic, parents and grandparents like me could all gather in a school auditorium and ask questions, or maybe even get a guided tour with HVAC examples.  I wonder if the District could convene a ZOOM meeting and interact with us on these and other in-person learning issues that concern us.

Benicia Mayor and Solano County Public Health Officer disagree whether teachers should get vaccine sooner

Benicia mayor asks Solano supervisors to move teachers to front of vaccination line

Fairfield Daily Republic, By Todd R. Hansen, February 10, 2021
Benicia Mayor Steve Young

Benicia Mayor Steve Young asked the Solano County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to move teachers to the front of the vaccination line so schools can open quickly and safely.

“And the key, as I see it, and absolutely to do that, is being able to vaccinate each teacher and member of the (schools’) staff,” Young said.

Educators are scheduled as part of the first tier of Phase 1B, the same as residents who are 65 to 74, agriculture workers, as well as child care and adult care workers.

The county is currently working through the groups in the final tier of Phase 1A.

Dr. Bela Matyas, the county public health officer, said the next group of seniors need to be the top priority since 80% of the county’s Covid-related deaths are residents who are 65 or older.

“So if we want to make a dent in our fatalities, we have to focus on (residents) 65 and older,” Matyas said in a phone interview after the board meeting. He was not part of the meeting agenda.

Matyas said he was aware of the pressure being applied to get teachers vaccinated more quickly, but does not agree that politicizing the issue is the best way to make health decisions.

Young’s comments came during the public comment period of the board meeting, during which Michele Guerra also called on the board to open the schools.

She said students, especially those who are deaf or hard of hearing, need to be back in the classrooms.

“Students are struggling with all this technology,” she said. “We need to get these schools open. Many of these students are falling behind.”

The board heard a similar message early in the pandemic from Superintendent of Schools Lisette Estrella-Henderson.

She told the board she was concerned with the potential effects of having schools closed on students with disabilities because of the reliance on distance learning and technology.

The schools closed to in-class instruction at the start of the pandemic in March. The vast majority remain closed, with children and teens receiving instruction online from their teachers….

ANALYSIS: School reopening becomes the new partisan wedge issue

See also this local perspective on reopening schools: Benicia Black Lives Matter letter opposes School Board recall effort

CNN POLITICS: What Matters

CNN, by Zachary B. Wolf, February 5, 2021

(CNN) The debate over when and how and whether to put American kids back in school is taking on a predictably partisan tinge in Washington, with Republicans targeting teachers’ unions and Democrats over perceived resistance to reopening.

But it’s more complicated than that. The fight over schools slices through red and blue America.

In San Francisco, for instance, despite a waning but still serious outbreak, the city, led by Mayor London Breed, has sued the school district for not having a fully developed plan to get kids back in the classroom. The city attorney said San Francisco kids are being turned into “Zoom-bies.” Breed, who was among the first US mayors to impose strict Covid lockdowns in 2020, wants to know when the kids will be back in schools. She said the nearly full year out of school is hurting communities of color and driving inequality.

In Chicago, the mayor and school board are locked in a standoff with the teachers’ union. “We need our kids back in school. We need our parents to have that option,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Thursday. “It cannot be so that a public school system denies parents that right.”

Unions representing teachers who have avoided physically returning to school buildings want vaccines and more safety measures. Parents are getting louder, organizing on social media and running grassroots campaigns to open school doors in the portions of the country where they remain shut. School districts, which are mostly controlled at the local level, keep delaying and punting.

This is a worldwide debate. There’s no consensus in Europe, either.

So which is the party of opening schools?

Democrats, without Republican help so far, are pushing a massive Covid relief package that would give new money to schools and Biden has made opening the majority of schools a key benchmark of his aggressive 100-day plan.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, said money isn’t the issue and slammed teachers’ unions, which he said “donate huge sums to Democrats and get a stranglehold over education in many communities.” Read this from CNN’s Dan Merica, Alex Rogers and Gregory Krieg on the new partisan wedge issue.

Republican governors in Ohio and Maryland are ramping up teacher vaccinations and setting early spring deadlines to get teachers and staff vaccinated in anticipation of reopening schools. In West Virginia, Republican Gov. Jim Justice said all teachers and staff who wanted a first dose have gotten it.

About half of states are prioritizing teachers, according to The New York Times. But it’s notable that some of the states with the worst outbreaks, like Texas, have both ordered schools to open and not prioritized teachers to get vaccines.

The tension between present danger and future risk

For the teacher side of things, read this CNN report about the hundreds of American educators who have been among the hundreds of thousands of American Covid deaths. For the student side of things, look at the recent studies suggesting schools that comply with safety guidance are not the cause of Covid spread.

Schools aren’t just not opening, they’re still closing. In Montgomery, Alabama, the school district closed this week until school staff can all get vaccinated after a string of teacher deaths from Covid.

But new US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday vaccines might not be necessary to safely reopen. “There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen and that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely,” she told reporters. “Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for the safe reopening of schools.”

That’s not official guidance, cautioned White House press secretary Jen Psaki. When asked about the comments, Psaki said she’d like to see that officially put out by CDC. “Certainly ensuring teachers are vaccinated, prioritizing teachers, is important to the President,” she said.

Re-opening schools won’t immediately fix the problems caused by a year out of them. In Chicago, where the city’s liberal mayor is at war with the city’s teachers’ union, data released by district about who will actually come back when schools open suggests it’s the White kids who will return, while the Black and Brown kids stay home.

Read this from the Chicago Tribune:
> When CPS offered the choice to return to schools to families in the first two waves, 67% of white students opted in, followed by 55% of multiracial students, 34% of Black students, 33% of Asian students and 31% of Latino students. Students with special education plans opted in at a lower-than-average rate, 36%, as did economically disadvantaged students, 32%.

The New York Times points out more White kids have returned to school in New York than Black kids and tries to explain mistrust of the system in communities that have already been frustrated by institutional racism in school facilities, funding and curriculum.

Mistrust of schools and mistrust of vaccines

There’s a frustrating similarity that should be explored in that the same Black and Brown communities that have been slow to adopt the Covid vaccine have been slow to return to school when given the opportunity.

Everyone’s doing things differently. In Virginia, the state Department of Education tracks what each district is doing, and the state map is a color-coded patchwork of open, virtual and hybrid.

Biden’s nominee for education secretary, Miguel Cardona — who was recently in charge of Connecticut’s education system — was asked at his confirmation hearing Wednesday if kids should be tested in this weird year, and whether the federal government will still give districts who don’t test students the federal money that is normally tied to it.

Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, asked the question in a simple way, according to the Washington Post: “Do you feel like the states should incorporate standardized testing this year given the circumstances of the pandemic?”

Cardona gave a very complicated answer. “I feel they should have an opportunity to weigh in on how they plan on implementing it and [on] the accountability issues, and whether or not they should be tied into any accountability measures as well,” he said.

That’s a definite maybe on the testing question, which is better than the “I don’t know” a lot of parents hear from local districts who won’t set timelines to return.

High school students react, comment on latest mass school shooting

From National Public Radio, NPR:

The students behind the March for Our Lives movement, which started after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida, sent a note of support, saying, “This is the most fatal shooting since the one at our school and tragedies like this will continue to happen unless action is taken.”

One of the leaders of the group, Emma Gonzalez, added via Twitter, “Santa Fe High, you didn’t deserve this.”

Video of student reaction, comments: Youth Radio.

Here is a post from March For Our Lives on Twitter: