Achieving health and safety wins in a pandemic

By Dorothy Wigmore

They’re both invisible, usually. One—ventilation—is essential to education unions in this pandemic. The other—how to win changes around the topic—is too.

Across the country, activists are inspecting heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and school buildings. They’re asking questions about filters, air changes per hour and maintenance. They are part of conversations, leading to common stands, improved ventilation and increased activism.

“Ever since the pandemic started, there’s been more teacher organizing throughout the country than in recent history,” says Rebecca Tarlau, the Penn State University assistant professor of education and labor and employment relations. She studies unions that represent teachers and other school employees.

“A lot is happening with rank-and-file teachers who are fed up and trying to figure out how to talk to their colleagues. They’re angry, frustrated, agitated and willing to mobilize,” she says. “They’re responding to the most radical transformation in teachers’ working conditions ever in U.S. history.” They also are building on lessons from successful 2018-2019 strikes in places like Chicago and Los Angeles, she says.

Indoor air quality

Ventilation is always on the agenda. It is essential to prevent or reduce the spread of airborne hazards like SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. In “normal” times, problems appear as poor indoor air quality (IAQ), mold, stuffy spaces and sick people. This pandemic adds another hazard and more consequences.

New Jersey education workers have a relatively unique tool to advocate for good ventilation: the state’s public sector Indoor Air Quality Standard. Schools must have a program, a designated person to oversee it, and maintenance and repair records.

In “The Road Back: Restart and Recovery Plan for Education,” the New Jersey Department of Education used the standard to require school reopening plans ensure that “indoor facilities have adequate ventilation.” Many schools do not; systems are outdated, poorly maintained or nonexistent.

Ventilation has been a rallying cry for education workers. Some are in groups like the Badass Teachers Association (BATs), National Educators United and NJ21 United (a group of school employees and parents). Melissa Tomlinson, a special education teacher at Buena Regional School District, is in all three.

“Health and safety came up when we started talking about reopening,” Tomlinson says. “There were a lot of national conversations around standards for our return. Groups in almost every state started adopting the same language.”

“Locally, we encouraged the use of OPRA (the Open Public Records Act),” she says. “It’s really helpful to get ventilation system information, maintenance logs. That’s what pushed a lot of New Jersey schools to start the year remotely because ventilation systems weren’t safe.”

The Buena Regional Education Association (BREA) got three years of ventilation documents, IAQ policies, and mold remediation reports.

“We also pushed to ensure the filters were upgraded as high as possible for MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) readings and started checking issues we’re still seeing in the buildings,” she says. They’re also trying to stay on top of pre-pandemic hazards, like mercury in rubberized flooring.

MTEA leaders and members inspected Millstone’s three schools with district officials twice before they were to open, finding damaged ventilation systems and improperly installed components.

Demanding proof, conducting inspections

Millstone Township Education Association (MTEA) members knew there were long-standing ventilation issues in their district. In late July, co-presidents Lisa Kennedy and Rose Kuntz worked with UniServ field rep Chris Johnson to request the information required for reopening plans. In mid-August, district officials said everything was good to go but provided little documentation.

Kennedy and others inspected the township’s three schools with district officials twice before they were to open, finding damaged ventilation systems and improperly installed components. Both times, filters were not changed as the business administrator said.

“We felt blind-sided,” Kennedy says. “The truth came out when we did the inspections. Six months of empty buildings and they didn’t get the job done.”

After special meetings, the board decided on remote learning for the first week of classes, giving teachers one day to prepare. As independent assessments and repairs got done, they went to a hybrid model and moved staff to ventilated rooms.

“We lost our trust. We need proof now,” Kennedy says. “We’ll do monthly inspections now, to make sure they’re following the plan.” Like BREA, the MTEA followed up with OPRA requests for information they did not get.

Organizing members

The Glen Ridge Education Association (GREA) also organized around ventilation.

There was a heightened awareness about ventilation when reopening discussions started, says GREA President MaryLynn Savio. Using her librarian skills, she read all she could, learned from regional union support meetings, and got help from the New Jersey Work Environment Council (WEC).

“NJEA also had a workshop that tied a lot of this together, so I had the questions to ask and terminology to use,” Savio says.

“We became painfully aware the high school (where she works) wouldn’t pass inspection—there was no documentation,” she says. The local organized members, supporting them to take their questions to a critical board meeting. With the local’s advocacy and without adequate ventilation, the board opted for remote classes until the HVAC system was upgraded and repaired.

“When you have the time and energy, the wherewithal, there’s a lot that can be accomplished if you have dedicated people willing to take that on,” Savio says. “I still feel other things need to be said and raised. In the current environment, people are working so hard, spread so thin, it’s really hard to do.”

Trained health and safety committees help, Savio says. Glen Ridge members were just getting started when schools closed “so people weren’t really competent and confident yet.”

These committees are “an organizing opportunity,” Tomlinson adds. “We have reps in each building who talk to people in their
buildings, exchanging information about what’s going on, concerns, what they’re hearing—a back and forth.”

Kennedy and others inspected the township’s three schools with district officials twice before

What’s ventilation?

Effective general ventilation systems move air in and out of buildings. They provide fresh air, mix it with recirculated filtered air, and control temperature and humidity. On its own, air conditioning is not ventilation. 

Some schools have a complete heating, cooling and air conditioning (HVAC) system. Others only have ventilators in windows, or windows that open. Other schools or spaces (e.g., janitorial storage areas) may have none. There are no guarantees that what’s there is well maintained, repaired or works, or that it hasn’t been changed during renovations.


NJEA – Member Resources on COVID-19 and School Reopening:

NJ Work Environment Council – COVID-19 Resources:

NJDOE – Restart and Recovery Plan: The Road Back:

NJEA – Organizing for Better Indoor Air Quality:

(Note that this is a PDF that may automatically drop into your downloads folder. After entering that link, if nothing appears on your screen, check your downloads folder.)

New Jersey IAQ standard and related resources:

New Jersey OPRA:

NJEA Review article – “Health and Safety Committees Knowledge + Action = Power”:

Dorothy Wigmore is a long-time health and safety specialist, trained in occupational hygiene, ergonomics, “stress” and education. A Canadian, she has worked also in the U.S. and Mozambique. Her focus is on solving job-related hazards through prevention and worker participation.