The long-overdue process of the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) renovations was streamlined at the start of the pandemic due to the absence of students and staff on campus, which made it easier for repairs to be done. Over the last several months, along with the yearly boiler maintenance that occurred on February 18, the district has been able to replace air filters throughout MSJ classrooms to help prevent COVID-19 transmission, repair the roofs above the C-wing classrooms, repaint certain classrooms and offices, and hopes to complete the Wellness Center before FUSD schools reopen for in-person learning, according to Principal Jeff Evans. However, HVAC systems across the district will not be replaced before reopening, a decision that has been met with concern from FUSD community members.
MSJ has dealt with HVAC issues for decades due to aging infrastructure. Evans said, “[The HVAC system is] 60 years old; it crashes once in a while and we’ve had a couple of rooms flooded.” In 2009, the Smoke Signal conducted an investigative report titled “MSJ Ventilation Crisis” that won an American Scholastic Press Association Outstanding Investigative Reporting Award, which found that 63% of MSJ teachers faced issues with the heating and ventilation units in their classrooms.
In 2013, US History Teacher Tony Bellotti’s classroom in the B-wing flooded after a leaky HVAC unit exploded, damaging electrical wires and desks. In October 2019, the air conditioning unit in M2 malfunctioned, resulting in no heat until after Winter Break. Because of frequent malfunctions, many MSJ teachers have turned to keeping portable heaters in their classrooms during the cold winter months and opening doors to keep cool in the spring and summer.
In early January, MSJ encountered a water leak in the locker rooms, and subsequently an underground pipe burst in early February, which caused water to leak into E2B, according to Evans. To minimize the leak, the water was turned off and the issue was cleared after several days of digging underground. Later, on March 15, maintenance staff made a routine visit to MSJ in order to fix a leaky valve in N1 and replace a new pump motor in the N-wing maintenance room. The district’s custodial crew and maintenance specialists are also putting antifreeze in the system’s pipes and ordering extra coils at several district sites.
Since the current state of the HVAC systems poses concerns for plans to reopen schools for in-person learning, the district is taking preventative measures to avoid future leaks and the transmission of the coronavirus through air conditioning vents. COVID-19 safety protocols that have been implemented include readjusting HVAC dampers to bring in additional outside air, purchasing portable air filtration units for classrooms, and fitting filtration sites with Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value filters of rating 11-13 – 16 being the most effective filter trap – made with synthetic media and with a better upgrade from cheaper disposable products. In addition, existing HVAC systems will be reconfigured to maximize airflow and central air filtration within classrooms, and classrooms with outdated HVAC units will be outfitted with air purifiers in the interim until additional funds become available.
Although FUSD does not install High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters in the building heating and cooling units, they have HEPA filters in the portable air units that are being installed in the classrooms and office areas, according to the FAQ on HVAC and Classroom Readiness introduced at the March 24 FUSD Board of Education meeting. FUSD rotates all filters at all sites every six months, changing filters in the summer or fall and in the spring of each school year. Additionally, all of the district’s HVAC systems are being monitored by an Energy Management System to allow maintenance staff to make adjustments as necessary.