Nearly half of public schools in the United States don’t have the proper ventilation systems to keep kids safe in the classroom, according to Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines.
The United States Government Accountability Office released a report in June this year showing that 41 percent of public school districts across the country have heating, venting and air conditioning (HVAC) systems that are in need of updates or repairs.
According to Heather Doe, the Iowa Department of Education Communications Director, the state does not keep track of school HVAC infrastructure data, so the exact number of school districts in Iowa that are in need of HVAC system repairs is unknown.
This summer, the Iowa Department of Education and the CDC released guidelines for ‘Return to Learn,’ but scientists and policy experts were at odds about the best approach.
The CDC guidelines to ‘Return to Learn’ for schools list good air quality and open ventilation as one of the primary ways to fight against the spread of COVID-19. The Center’s guidelines instructed local officials and school boards to monitor COVID-19 cases and adapt their return to learn plan based on community needs.
As a primary way to fight back on infections, the CDC website instructs schools to “reinforc[e] everyday preventive actions, ensuring proper ventilation within school facilities,” even if there is no or minimal community spread.
However, Iowa Department of Education guidelines released this summer were less strict on proper ventilation, masking, and social distancing protocols. This summer, Governor Kim Reynolds signed an executive order requiring all schools to follow the Department of Education’s guidelines to return to school.
In August, the Iowa State Education Association union filed a lawsuit with Iowa City Schools to protest Reynolds’ executive order. The President of ISEA, Mike Beranak, said in an August news conference that the lawsuit was to “immediately declare local school districts, not the governor, have the authority to make local decisions affecting the health and safety of their schools.”
The lawsuit was settled in September and ruled in the favor of the State of Iowa.
One major concern about the lack of ventilation systems in Iowa schools, and across the country, is the increase in community spread of the COVID-19 virus and how that will impact hospital capacities.
State Representative Ruth Ann Gaines, a former Iowa teacher and a National Teachers Hall of Fame inductee, expressed concern about student safety in the classrooms this fall.
“I am an education specialist and I firmly believe that the health of our children comes first,” Gaines said. “Poor ventilation in some schools will spread the virus and ultimately challenge the health of many of our young students.”
Gaines also expressed concern about hospital capacities in the state as the return to learn this fall continues to lead in increased COVID-19 cases.
“I have felt that we opened things up too soon in the state to be able to get a handle on the spread of the virus,” Gaines said. “The virus will undoubtedly spread with schools and colleges opening with face-to-face instruction. It would be a tragedy to not have hospital capacity to treat the rise of increased cases in the state.”
However, State Representative and House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Dolecheck did not share Gaines’ concern.
“I think they’ve done as good a job they can,” Dolecheck said. “And in my opinion, a majority of students learn best when they are in a school setting…with an actual teacher in a classroom.”
Dolecheck said that rural districts do not have the same concerns or trends as urban areas in Iowa.
“As far as hospitals go, there’s plenty of capacity built into most rural hospitals to handle any outbreak we may see,” Dolecheck said.
He also said that in rural areas, he hasn’t seen an upward trend in cases and thinks that local governments have done a good job of handling mask mandates and what their community needs.