by Andrew Garda
The Montclair schools have extensive ventilation system problems that would cost an estimated $26 million to fix, at minimum, over the long term, a consultant’s report says.
The report, by architecture and engineering firm EI Associates, details problems in 12 of the township’s school buildings, including ancient and broken equipment and rooms that have no ventilation machinery serving them.
The 179-page report did not provide cost estimates for the short-term measures it suggested to deal with problems, but its estimate for needed long-term changes was put at upwards of $26 million.
The school district received the report, titled “District-Wide Ventilation Assessment for Montclair Board of Education” and obtained by Montclair Local, on Oct. 16.
Officials decided not to reopen the schools on schedule this fall due largely to questions and concerns about the connection of COVID’s spread to ventilation issues. They have said they would reassess the school reopening situation on Dec. 1.
EI Associates representatives who attended the Oct. 19 Board of Education meeting said filters would be changed or improved where they could be and that air purifiers and ionizers were ordered and would be delivered. There have been no details provided to parents, teachers or the general public as to how many of the report’s suggestions have since been acted upon.
In response to several questions about the report from Montclair Local, Superintendent Jonathan Ponds wrote the following:
“I am pleased with our progress to date. We started our repairs in August before we had the final report. The mechanical ventilation systems in need of repair have been addressed. We continue maintenance to other ventilation systems, where needed. We have also addressed concerns with our dampers. With respect to creating natural ventilation through open windows, once in-person instruction resumes we will be monitoring weather and classroom temperatures to assure safe conditions for both students and staff. Additionally, we will have air purifiers in classrooms that have non-mechanical systems.”
The Local also reached out to Mayor Sean Spiller, for comment. Spiller is also the vice president of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA).
Those rooms designated as green have heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment in full working order. Rooms designated yellow have HVAC equipment, but the ventilation system is not working. Rooms designated as red are flagged as having no mechanical ventilation.
Of the 1,024 rooms examined in the district, only 18 percent were green-coded, while 26 percent were red. The bulk of the rooms are coded as yellow, at 56 percent, with mechanical problems such as pneumatic air leaks, failed actuators (machine components responsible for moving and controlling a mechanism) or dampers that cannot open.
“Many unit motors appear to have failed and need to be replaced, or the units won’t turn on due to other mechanical/electrical issues,” the report stated.
Charles H. Bullock School was not included in the report, because “it was constructed in 2010 and should have been designed and installed to have code-compliant ventilation,” the report says.
The report says that numerous unit ventilators are well past their usefulness and date from 60 to 90 years ago. For nearly a century, schools have relied on unit ventilators to keep classrooms comfortable.
Hillside Elementary School has “several rooms and spaces that are served by old 1930-vintage heating ventilator units and exhaust fans that are in poor condition, located in the second floor fan room. Many other rooms are served by 1950-vintage unit ventilators that are far beyond their life expectancies.”
At Edgemont Elementary School, four of five units are marked as 70-year-old unit ventilators that need replacement. Nishuane Elementary lists 35 such units.
Northeast Elementary School has 13 rooms requiring replacement of 70-year-old unit ventilators and eight units listed as “20 years old and now at the end of life expectancy.” Overall, Northeast has just four rooms designated as green, 38 as yellow and 12 as red.
Nishuane has five green rooms, with 42 yellow and 26 red. Hillside has 25 green rooms, 59 yellow and 24 red. Edgemont has no green rooms, 14 yellow and 22 red.
Those schools appear to be among the worst off, although Montclair High School and the George Inness Annex also have many problematic spaces. Combined they have 41 green rooms, 151 yellow and 111 red.
‘What is the plan?’
For Northeast parent Justin Klabin, the details of the EI Associates report were alarming, as was the date on the report. Klabin is a commercial and industrial building owner with specialized training in environmental design for indoor air quality, and he has extensive experience with commercial HVAC systems, retrofitting and air-quality testing.
“I think it should have been repaired already,” he said. “That’s my thing. This should have been done over the summer, and they didn’t even finish this report till Oct. 16. That’s, like, wacko to me. I don’t know how that could happen.”
He saw a lot to be concerned with in the report.
“They said that they replaced 150 pieces of equipment, whatever that means. And they bought, I think, 200 purifiers and maybe have another couple hundred on order,” he said.
The age of the equipment limits the district’s options, he said. Newer, high-efficiency filters cannot be used with 70-year-old equipment, so the district is left with more expensive options, such as ionizers, Klabin said.
The short-term suggestions from the report include things like repairing or replacing fan motors, repairing outside air dampers and actuators so the equipment can bring in fresh outside air and upgrading air filters where possible. The long-term suggestions involve massive overhauling of unit ventilators in the district, replacing or installing new machines in nearly every building.
But replacing those machines would likely not be a quick process, slowing down the overall effort to deal with ventilation issues.
Klabin said the lack of functioning equipment makes it hard to bring in fresh air, and opening windows for natural ventilation doesn’t seem like much of a solution, especially over the course of the winter.
“What is the exact plan? What does that mean? You open all the windows? You open one window? If the engineer says you have to open half the windows in X classroom on a day like today, where it’s 28 degrees in the morning, you can’t leave them open. It’s just not possible. It would be so cold in there. So, then you close the windows and now you’re left with no ventilation,” Klabin said.
Another suggestion in the report, which the district has said it is implementing, would be to put portable air purifiers in classrooms. Klabin’s first concern about that was noise.
With a hybrid learning model — kids remote and kids in the room — any loud and consistent noise could be detrimental to a student’s ability to learn and a teacher’s ability to teach. Additionally, Klabin said, the physical size of the purifiers just won’t get the job done.
He feels a profound sense of frustration, he said, that in a district as wealthy as Montclair, these issues were allowed to linger for so long. The pandemic merely highlighted them, he said.
“My biggest takeaway is this has been neglected probably for, you know, decades,” Klabin said. He said it’s not just a COVID-19 issue — it’s a health and air-quality issue.
“A lot of people didn’t think about it before, but that’s how you spread disease through here,” he explained. “It’s like we spread cold and flu in the air. All these years [kids have] been in classrooms that have no ventilation, windows are closed up, they’re recirculating air. It’s no surprise that we get sick, it’s the best way to spread any disease, just recirculate the same air and not filter it.”