WARWICK — The School Committee has authorized the $750,000 for Warwick Schools HEPA filters, to be delivered within 12 weeks, upgrading air quality to improve the safety of in-person learning.
Director of School Buildings and Maintenance Steven Gothberg said the HEPA filters would will be paid for with federal funds. Electrical modifications will be made to all the schools before the units are delivered.
“Multiple school districts and communities around the country are scrambling to purchase these units at the same time due to Covid-19,” Gothberg said, noting the wildfires in California would cause a delay in shipping by many weeks due to the localities most impacted by the fires.
Chief Budget Officer Anthony Ferrucci advised the committee to hold a special meeting for the purpose of awarding contracts for the HEPA filters.
Following recent “walk-throughs” of all 20 school buildings conducted by the Rhode Island Department of Education, it was concluded the majority of the district’s schools do not meet the basic criteria required to guarantee school safety. The walk-through reports can be viewed on the district’s website.
The walk-throughs judged each school according to 38 requirements, including screening at entrances by taking temperatures of students, the ability to maintain six feet of distance at all times, the presence of sinks in classrooms, the amount of cleaning supplies in classrooms, a sufficient number of masks, desks spaced out in the classrooms, and rooftop HVAC (ventilation) units. All but three school buildings failed on ventilation.
In-person classes are being held at Veterans Middle School, the Career and Technical Center, and Drum Rock Elementary School. At the Sept. 8 meeting, Superintendent Phil Thornton told the committee these schools are being used due to their air circulation systems.
Thornton told the School Committee the installation of HEPA filters in the schools would be a “viable solution” to keeping schools safe from coronavirus.
“We want to do what we can to cut through the red tape and get these filters,” Thornton noted.
Parents’ letter demands immediate in-person learning
The district also needs to hire staff to clean the schools, as well as monitors, aides, and teaching subs, Gothberg added.
A petition signed by over 300 parents, which was read at Tuesday’s meeting, advocated for “parents’ right to choose in-person education for their children and request immediate action to implement in-person education in Warwick Public Schools.”
“Warwick is never going to have enough money to do what needs to be done to our schools,” wrote one parent. “Our children, our families, our parents, deserve the choice to have those buildings open to them for learning.”
“You are not my child’s parent,” wrote Brian Mulligan. “You are not here to make decisions about their safety. I will not allow you to sacrifice my child’s education to quell your own fears and calm your conscience.”
Christine and David Ellingwood said the committee’s decisions regarding the opening of schools and lack of work to provide a safe environment for our students and buildings without students since March have been “embarrassing to our community.”
The Committee defended their decision to institute distance learning for the majority of the district, citing air quality concerns.
Last month, Governor Gina Raimondo accused the committee of “throwing in the towel” on the district’s students.
“We never threw in the towel and we never will,” Committee chairperson Karen Bachus said. “Our buildings, with the exception of three, are not safe. We did everything we were required to do.”
Committee member David Testa, responding to criticisms from parents, explained air quality wasn’t even mentioned by state officials until the middle of the summer.
“At the end of the day, this is an issue about air quality and ventilation as per the state. Number one for the fire hazard. Number two we don’t have the electrical load to run box fans in every single classroom. Box fans are a temporary fix. It was impossible to plan for ground rules that you didn’t know existed,” Testa said. “We really had about 10 weeks to (decide what to do with the schools). It wasn’t easy.”
“We didn’t create this virus,” said committee vice-chair Judy Cobden, noting many of the district’s classrooms do not have windows.
“It’s completely unsafe,” Cobden said. “I’m not scared about it. I’m making safe, logical decisions for our district.”
New school repair bond further addresses heat, AC systems
The school department is seeking the voters’ approval of a $56 million bond for school repairs. $26.8 million will be designated for installing new heating and air conditioning systems for all elementary schools. $13.7 million will be used for windows and door replacements at all elementary schools, Warwick Vets Middle School, Winman Middle School, and Drum Rock.