Let’s purify the air in CT rooms

More than a century ago, even before the 1918 pandemic, educators made the dramatic decision to teach outdoors in an attempt to ensure student health

It was an effort to stem the spread of tuberculosis in 1908. Rhode Island’s experience has sometimes been emulated during the recent pandemic, but time and technology have yet to guarantee air quality in inside schools.

If COVID didn’t inspire school districts to invest in improved ventilation, what would? Yet an informal Hearst Connecticut Media survey of the districts indicates little has been done to address a problem that has only been exacerbated by the coronavirus.

The common excuse, as you might expect, is to point to a lack of funding. Still, federal COVID dollars have been delivered to schools across the country with a suggestion that some of the money be spent on ventilation upgrades. In too many cases, this is tantamount to handing a 12-year-old a holiday gift card in the hope that they’ll invest in warm winter clothes. There have been exceptions (notably in Norwalk), but many cities have spent the money elsewhere.

Part of the challenge is that clean air remains an invisible issue. If the roof of a classroom is leaking and dripping wet liquids, there are usually unified cries about a seizure. But no one can see the impure air.

Teachers, at least, seem to recognize the problem. Surveyed by their union, the Connecticut Education Association, 85% said improving traffic flow was a “very important” issue.

When the state Department of Education surveyed districts, responses indicated that 40 percent of facilities had central air conditioning for the entire building. Since this doesn’t account for installs that didn’t respond, the actual number is likely even worse.

Local school buildings tend to be old, and municipalities around the world are struggling to decide whether to upgrade expensive landmarks or build new ones.

Meanwhile, this is another example of the lack of equality when it comes to classrooms. Some have a centralized system, while others leave it to the teachers to open the windows to bring in fresh air like in 1919.

The standard set by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is to have up-to-date HVAC systems and air filtration methods. Many classrooms have added portable air purifiers during the pandemic, which isn’t much better than putting a bucket under those leaky ceilings.

Twenty-nine months into COVID, some of its lessons still refuse to be learned. In those first few months, we were cleaning the grocery store before we realized we should have been cleaning the air.

Connecticut school districts insist on maintaining independence from state intervention on many issues. This is a case where Hartford lawmakers must formally set air quality standards that local districts must meet.

COVID has not unmasked this problem, which has existed for generations. But our gubernatorial candidates should suggest practical solutions during the election campaign. Closing the achievement gap requires keeping children in the classroom, and that requires Connecticut to maintain healthy school buildings.