Published On: September 25, 2020

Thursday, September 24, 2020


Extensive building safety issues raised as high-needs students prepare to enter school buildings

New BTU and MassCOSH report reveals significant ventilation and other safety insufficiencies in Boston school buildings

BOSTON – The Boston Teachers Union (BTU) and Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) released a report today outlining safety concerns and recommendations for school buildings based on walkthroughs that the organizations took part in last week. Educators are eager to have students return in person for in-person instruction in safe school facilities and are taking the initiative to ensure that buildings and staff have what they need to keep everyone safe.  

BTU and MassCOSH participated in walkthroughs of six schools to identify changes to the buildings needed to create a safe and healthy learning and teaching environment during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The organizations found major issues relating to windows and fans, ventilation and filtration, indoor air quality inspection data, and cleaning protocols.

The need to prepare Boston Public Schools (BPS) for in-building instruction is a monumental task that has become even more critical as Mayor Walsh announced just yesterday that the City of Boston is “very close” to the “red zone” in the MA Department of Public Health’s color-coded map which categorizes communities based on the average rate of COVID-19 cases. The red category represents the highest risk and rate of cases (at least 8 per 100,000 people). In addition to ensuring social distancing, masks, hygiene, and cleaning and disinfecting, schools must ensure that students and staff are protected from all forms of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), in particular airborne transmission of viral aerosols. Airborne aerosol transmission involves viral particles that can float in the air for long periods of time over distances well beyond six feet. It occurs when live virus is exhaled by infected individuals and then inhaled by another (uninfected) person.

Occupational health experts from the MassCOSH Health-Technical committee were invited by the BTU to participate in school building walkthroughs with BPS at six buildings (seven schools) on September 16. The goal of these walkthroughs was to affirm that changes necessary in school buildings to create a safe and healthy learning and teaching environment during the COVID-19 pandemic were in place. This report details key concerns and recommendations of MassCOSH’s expert health-technical committee after those six walkthroughs as well as a technical review of data collected by BTU building representatives’ during their walkthrough inspections conducted with school leaders, nurses, custodians, parents, and high school students throughout 1055 schools in the District between September 14-18.

“Our highest-needs students are expected to go back to school a week from today, and while some of our buildings are ready, many of them are not verifiably safe,” said Jessica Tang, president of the BTU. “We cannot send our students and educators into buildings that aren’t properly ventilated and maintained, and we will continue to work with the district and city to ensure that they are.”

Many items on the BTU checklist were lacking in schools or not in place at the time of the walkthroughs last week such as: window fans, N95 respirators and other medical-grade PPE for nurses, some signage and room configurations for the various student cohorts, sanitizer in every classroom, and many other items. Since that time, BPS has delivered PPE, fans and additional extension cords, with more scheduled for delivery, to many schools. However, there are reports of fans being delivered that do not fit the windows or cannot be plugged in because the extension cords are too short. The BTU is advocating forThe BTU is advocating for another walkthrough for all facilities to assure that all required items are in place, prior to when staff and students are to be in the facilities.  

“We are very concerned about the condition of some of the BPS buildings in terms of sending children and educators back so soon,” said Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, Executive Director of MassCOSH. “We hope this report helps educators, students and families make informed decisions about returning to their buildings, and hopefully challenges the district to re-evaluate the conditions they are deeming safe for their students.”

MassCOSH has a 30-year history of working with school communities – parents, students, school staff, unions, and environmental health allies to assess and improve building conditions. Through state and national coalitions, MassCOSH and its partners have advocated for resources, policies, and standards to support green and healthy conditions for all schools. MassCOSH played a key role in establishing the Healthy Schools Task Force in Boston in 2002 to address environmental conditions in BPS that can affect health and learning. For the last 18 years, the Healthy Schools Task Force developed environmental policies and procedures to improve indoor air quality and school building conditions and reported progress annually to the City Council. It is with this expertise and experience that they participated in building walkthroughs and present these recommendations.

BTU and MassCOSH wish to thank all of the custodians, facilities, engineering and maintenance staff for their incredible work over the spring, summer and fall. Due to the unprecedented crisis our communities have faced, these workers have been asked to do more to upgrade the schools’ facilities in a few short months than-for many of our schools-over the last few decades. This is in addition to substantial investment in our facilities by the City of Boston over the last few years and we acknowledge that effort. While we still have concerns about what work needs to be done to ensure health and safety, it is the incredible commitment and effort put forth by the building and facilities staff members that has enabled the school buildings to get to where they are and to where they will be.


About the Boston Teachers Union:
The Boston Teachers Union proudly represents more than 10,000 teachers and other professionals including school nurses, psychologists, guidance counselors, paraprofessionals, and substitute teachers. Together, we advocate for the interests of students, parents and education professionals throughout the Boston Public Schools. We support investment in public education to ensure a stronger future for our students and our city. As a union of educators, we are part of a movement that seeks to improve the quality of life for all working people. We are united against all forms of prejudice and bigotry that would seek to devalue the lives or liberties of our students, families or colleagues.

About Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health:
MassCOSH strives to ensure that all workers earn their living and return home alive and well. MassCOSH unites workers, unions and community groups with environmental and health activists, to end dangerous work conditions, to organize for safe, secure jobs, and to advocate for healthy communities. Through training, technical assistance and building community/labor alliances, MassCOSH mobilizes its members and develops leaders in the movement to end unsafe work conditions.

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