WARWICK, RI— The Winman and Toll Gate schools may not be ready for full-time, in-person learning anytime soon.
The two secondary schools are still not where they need to be for a future, full-time return. At a meeting earlier this month, Superintendent Phil Thornton told School Committee members that these secondary schools would have difficulty in managing airflow since many of the rooms in these buildings lack windows.
Grades six through 12 in Warwick are currently all distance learning.
For schools to return to full-time learning in Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan they would need to meet certain ventilation guidelines.
Steven Gothberg, director of school buildings and maintenance told School Committee members last week that those guidelines were recently revised with changes related to classroom size, air changes per hour and the number of people allowed in those spaces.
Gothberg said if they can achieve air changes in those revised guidelines with air purifiers, exhaust fans and open classroom doors, then the city would have the ability to open both schools in the hybrid model only. But opening both buildings to a full, non-hybrid model would require bringing additional fresh air into the building, according to Gothberg and that could mean putting new systems in both schools, even if they are just temporary. For Winman that would mean the installation of a temporary system until a new HVAC system is installed and completed and at the Toll Gate that would mean a permanent system. Both potential solutions were proposed by Tim Elliot of Arden Engineering.
“Both concepts have potential solutions but much work would be needed to be done before any options could be considered,” Gothberg said.
David Testa asked if there was any idea of the cost of these potential solutions, especially since the high school discussion is still alive and if they could be paid for with bond funds. He also asked if a new system installed at the Toll Gate would stay or be removed. It would be removed if the city moved forward with the high school plan, Gothberg said.
“So we would be spending six figures to install something to uninstall it later,” Testa said. “That could be a tough one to get our arms around.”
Thornton said his office received an email last week from the state about more potential funding available for fixing schools like these. Anthony Ferrucci, chief executive officer of finance and operations, said that believes that funding is around $4 million for the entire state. “I think it’s going to be a six-figure number to dedicate and this is something we can look at but I don’t think it’s significant enough to be the kind of program we are going to need,” Ferrucci said.
The issue of those double inside rooms could pose the biggest problem as it could be difficult to get those air changes where they need to be due to lack of windows and their positioning within the building and that impacts if they can be used even in a hybrid learning model.
Committee member Judith Cobden expressed her concern about these rooms saying she’s spent time in some of them, one in particular and all pre-COVID.
“You have to walk through another classroom to get to that classroom. The ventilation in that said room is going to be beyond minimal,” she said. “I don’t think anyone can convince me that’s going to be a safe option. “As far as air quality goes now it seems to me if we have 13 kids in one of the rooms and then 13 in the other we’re just blowing air around in a room that has no windows. Some of the rooms I’ve been in without windows – I’m very concerned about it. Very concerned.”
Approximately 25% of rooms at the Winman and 30-35% of rooms at Toll Gate are windowless.
Cobden suggested before the committee does anything members should go sit in one of those rooms to see how it feels. “I’m nervous about this,” she added.
“When we are talking about bond money it’s not like the state’s going to give us 100% of the money to fix or to break through roofing and ceilings and everything else to make this happen,” Committee Chair Karen Bachus said. “We aren’t talking small money. We’re talking big money and that’s all going to be thrown out. The city would have to come up with a portion too … That’s a big ask and I don’t know if it’s economical.”
Testa said the committee needs to have a default position to get back into school in person. “I don’t think we could ever do full, in-person high school every day for every student,” he said. “I don’t think that’s possible for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is those inside rooms.”
“If we aren’t going to use these inside rooms with air purifiers, I don’t know how Toll Gate goes back,” he added. “If we can’t use 25-30% of the rooms I just don’t know how we go back even in a hybrid model.”
Chairman Karen Bachus said she doesn’t think the committee would want those double inside rooms used for many reasons. “They’ve always disrupted the other class when kids had to go to the lav and things like that and with COVID I think that is just completely contraindicated.”
HEPA filter units have been ordered for all the city’s classrooms. Testa told the Warwick Post on Tuesday that the elementary school units were set to arrive Tuesday and Thursday and installation will begin immediately. HEPA filter units for the secondary schools are not due until some time in November.