Coventry superintendent concerned about air flow in schools calls in consultant to make recommendations for improvement

COVENTRY, R.I. (WLNE) – As the start of the school year inches closer, some superintendents in the state have concerns that their schools aren’t yet safe to reopen.

Following a presentation a few weeks ago by the Rhode Island Department of Health, where an expert in infectious disease showed school leaders ways to address air quality in buildings, the Superintendent of Schools in Coventry realized he hadn’t given much attention to the district’s aging ventilation and HVAC systems.

“Just opening the windows isn’t enough. We need that exchange of air, and for interior classrooms, we need either HEPA filters or these MERV 13 filters, and the concern is our HVAC systems are 20, 30, 40 years old in some cases,” said Superintendent Craig Levis.

Old systems can’t filter the way they should in order to stop the spread of coronavirus. That’s why Levis and his team have hit a roadblock in their reopening plans for the 2020-21 school year.

Levis said the district has spent the last few months getting enough personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies to safely reopen, but now with air quality concerns, he doesn’t know where the district will come up with the cash.

“(RIDE) made some recommendations: buying box fans, getting these MERV 13 filters, doing maybe some maintenance on our HVAC systems, and my concern is with what? We don’t have any resources,” said Levis. “The state has cut our state aid for July and August to 91.7% I believe. In Coventry, a budget was turned down, so we’re actually working off of last year’s budget. So we have incredible cash flow issues.”

Director of Finance for the district, Sarah Mangiarelli, said it’s difficult to order supplies when many vendors need a down payment. And when it comes to HVAC and ventilation improvements, she’s estimated it could cost half a million dollars.

“We are waiting on the state to pass a budget, but the town of Coventry also voted down our budget. So by charter, we can only spend 1/12th each month of the previous year’s budget.”

The district has contracted an expert who will come in and assess their buildings and the air quality to make sure they’re up to par. That person will make recommendations on what to improve, but if they can’t afford to make the repairs, the decision on reopening schools could be made for them.

“I need to make sure that, before I bring students and staff into buildings, that we’ve done everything we can do to make it safe. So right now, there’s a red flag. I’m concerned that maybe our spaces aren’t safe.”

But Levis said he’s not ready to make that call yet.

“If I can’t ensure as superintendent that students and staff can be in our school buildings, our facilities safely, then that’ll make the decision for us but I’m not ready to make that decision yet.”

District leaders in Coventry will be discussing the COVID-19 budget with the school committee Wednesday night.

© WLNE-TV 2020

Categories: Coronavirus, News, Regional News, Rhode Island