A BPS employee next to her school’s high-tech ventilation system

Here in Boston, our COVID-19 rates are surging, and they’re trying to re-open the schools.

I can’t help but take this personally. My first wife died of breast cancer, and my second wife works in Boston Public Schools and has a dicey immune system. It certainly feels like they’re trying to widow me for the second time.

Of course, I understand this isn’t true. I’m not important enough to be singled out for persecution. But neither am I, or my wife, or the children she serves important enough for our lives and our safety to matter.

Which brings me to ventilation.

93 of Boston’s 125 public school buildings do not have HVAC systems. Most have poorly functioning radiators and are usually too hot or too cold. On hot days in the fall and early summer, teachers and students on the top floors of some of these buildings have to try to do their work in temperatures above 80 degrees.

Some of these schools have had new windows installed. These windows tilt about 8 inches but otherwise don’t open. I assume this is a safety measure so that people don’t accidentally fall out of open windows, but what it means is that the ventilation in these buildings is severely limited.

One thing we know, and have known for months now, is that the risk of indoor COVID-19 transmission is greatly reduced by adequate ventilation. The City of Boston’s response to this was to provide a single box fan for classrooms with traditional windows with instructions that windows should be left open for the entire New England winter. Except in those old buildings with the tilt-in windows, where classrooms got a little fan that perches precariously atop the opening where the window tilts in.

The fact that both the City and the Commonwealth want students and staff to go back to work under these conditions illustrates the contempt they have for so many of us. They literally don’t care if students, staff, and their families live or die. The most important thing is “getting the economy moving.”

It’s worth unpacking this because there’s a rotten truth at its core: opening schools will not bring back the industries that have been crippled by the pandemic. But it will mean that low-wage workers can go back to work for more hours, which means there won’t be pressure on employers to raise wages to attract and retain scarce workers. So this is what my wife is being asked to risk death for: a few more pennies in the corporate ledger.

Retrofitting 95 schools with HVAC systems would be an enormous, expensive undertaking. But it could be done. In his first year in office, Marty Walsh agreed to put the City of Boston on the hook for cost overruns that related to the proposed Summer Olympics bid. After the bid was withdrawn, these costs were estimated to be 970 million dollars. Then Walsh and Charlie Baker tripped over themselves to throw public money at the failing General Electric corporation to relocate its headquarters to Boston. Boston guaranteed General Electric 25 million dollars in public money in the form of “property tax relief.”

The money can be found. What’s lacking is the will. The city will not find the money because it doesn’t care to.

Because the people affected do not matter.

And they never have. Because functional HVAC systems don’t just help prevent the spread of COVID-19; they also help ensure that students and teachers can focus on class rather than on how hot or cold they are; they also help prevent asthma attacks.

Almost twenty percent of students in Boston Public Schools have been diagnosed with asthma. These eleven thousand children would have had better educations and better lives if so many of them weren’t placed into buildings that exacerbated their condition.

Again: this has all been known for years. The mayor doesn’t care. The previous mayor didn’t care. And the city council doesn’t care. After all, it’s only poor black and brown children trying to breathe. It’s not like it’s the Olympics or General Electric.

I know some city councilors are sympathetic to the schools, but I haven’t seen one stand up and demand that BPS buildings have functioning HVAC systems as a precondition to schools opening in a pandemic. Perhaps this is because they feel it’s impossible given the cost.

But it’s not impossible. What’s possible is constrained only by what we want and what we’re willing to demand.

We continue to be represented by politicians too timid to demand this basic measure of justice, but we do not have to share their timidity.

Boston’s schools should not re-open during the pandemic without HVAC systems. And even if everyone gets vaccinated tomorrow, Boston’s teachers, students, administrators, cafeteria workers and custodians still matter enough to deserve healthy buildings.

Every school needs an HVAC system now. Before we buy any new police cruisers. Before we hire any consultants. Before we spend a dime to try to promote tourism.

Yes, it will be expensive. Yes, it will be a logistical nightmare. Both things are also true of hosting an Olympics bid, and our leaders tripped over themselves trying to make that happen. Of course, the Olympics would have made a small number of people a lot of money. All HVAC systems will do is save lives.

Local Curmudgeon. He/His