New Jersey schools with aging ventilation systems struggle to meet state's reopening requirements

WINSLOW TOWNSHIP, New Jersey (WPVI) -- As more and more New Jersey school districts are deciding to go virtual for the start of the new academic year, they must submit to the state why they can't reopen.

One of the more complicated issues to resolve, especially for districts with older buildings, is ventilation.

In Winslow Township, parents like Betty Hudson are getting ready for four months of virtual learning.

"She needs a little bit extra. And I'm not a teacher, so it's a little bit difficult within the homes. I'm sure not just within mine," said Hudson, who has a daughter who attends Winslow Township Middle School.

At Thursday night's virtual school board meeting, the board voted to go 100% remote until January. A big reason for this, it will take time for an independent company to inspect and fix or replace ventilation and HVAC units, some of which are decades old.

"Yes, they are functioning, but to what degree? We will not be able to know that until this assessment process," said Superintendent Dr. H. Major Poteat.

That assessment for all eight schools in the district will cost a total of $258,000, according to the superintendent.

Winslow is not the only district to delay reopening because of ventilation concerns.

When Gov. Phil Murphy announced that New Jersey schools could open remotely if they could not meet the state's safety standards, Willingboro's superintendent of schools cited ventilation as one of the reasons for delaying in-person classes, along with back-ordered PPE and equipment.

Murphy said Friday inadequate ventilation is one of the items that can prevent a school from opening in person, and one of the more complicated issues to address, but state officials also said indoor air quality standards for schools are not new.

"For every school district, there should be a designated person who is responsible for indoor air quality, as well as insuring that there's a written plan," said state epidemiologist Dr. Christina Tan.

Winslow's superintendent says they have maintained their aging ventilation systems through the years - but this is different.

"We have never been asked to certify that our systems are working to manufacturer's requirements or recommendations. That has never been asked of us. However, it is being asked of us now by the state," said Poteat.

Winslow school officials said at the meeting Thursday night they can cover the costs of the initial assessment.

Murphy said Friday that CARES act funding may be an option for school districts that need financial assistance with ventilation.
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