West Hartford BOE pushes to improve air quality in schools

A school bus in Connecticut on Oct. 13, 2020. West Hartford Public Schools’ Board of Education approved its proposed capital improvement plan after amending it to shorten the expected timeline for air quality upgrades across nine of the elementary schools.

WEST HARTFORD — The Board of Education has approved its proposed capital improvement plan, after amending it to shorten the expected timeline for air quality upgrades across nine of its elementary schools.

Instead of having the air quality improvements stretch over 20 years as previously suggested, the board wants them completed in 10 years. Proposed allocations across two fiscal years are up for consideration at an April town council meeting.

Board of Education chair Deb Polun said the air quality improvement project is one they’ve wanted to pursue “for many years.”

“Not only do they [most of the elementary schools] not have air conditioning, but they have less than optimal fresh air circulation through the building. And it’s just that our buildings are pretty old, and it’s a very expensive, and lengthy, complicated process,” Polun said. “Each building is set up differently, so it’s not like a plug-and-play kind of a system that we can just pop into each elementary school.”

With the pandemic, too, there’s been “greater interest among many people around air quality,” Polun said.

“Before this was sort of phrased as, ‘Well, if they don’t have air conditioning, it’s OK, how many days really get that hot,’” she said. “And now, the conversation has really shifted to air quality, which is what it has been all along, but it has taken on increased importance, of course, with the pandemic.”

In the plan, the air quality improvements — which are expected to start during the 2022-23 fiscal year — have a projected overall cost of more than $57 million over the 10-year span, divided into estimated allotments that would rise each year.

Robert Palmer, town Plant and Facilities director, noted in an email that the latest figures are “very preliminary estimates” that are subject to change as design work is underway.

Of the school system’s 11 elementary schools, only Charter Oak International Academy and Florence E. Smith “have building-wide fresh air and air conditioning systems,” according to the plan.

The rest are expected to have upgrades in some form. While Braeburn and Wolcott do possess fresh air systems, there’s “limited air conditioning,” according to the plan. As for the others expected to see changes, there’s “limited fresh air and air conditioning along with inefficient single-pane window systems,” according to the plan.

Per the plan, the first schools to see upgrades would be Duffy as well as Webster Hill.

After the start of the pandemic, a consultant reviewed West Hartford Public Schools’ air systems “to increase fresh air ventilation and improve air filtration levels where feasible,” according to the plan.

Some adjustments were made for this school year, such as “changes in the filters that we use” and running systems at night more than they used to, according to Superintendent Tom Moore. Moore and Polun said there wasn’t cause for concern related to the safety of the schools’ existing systems.

The air quality improvement plan comprises just one part of the capital improvement plan, much of which covers “recurring projects,” such as removing asbestos or upgrading building exteriors, per the plan.

Security upgrades — which cover changes such as making school entrances easier to monitor — have one more year of funding set aside in the plan for 2021-22.

Connecticut Media Group