Overcrowded schools and classrooms

A longstanding problem is even worse during COVID-19

By Debra Coyle

If you work in a New Jersey school, you’ve probably witnessed firsthand the problem of overcrowded classrooms. Students scrambling for desks, taking notes standing up, leaning on radiators or even laying on the floor to do their work. 

“We all come in, all running because there’s like 40 of us and we all want to get a seat,” a sixth-grader named Valerie Ramirez from Palisades Park told WABC-TV Eyewitness News in February of 2020. 

Since then, of course, our whole world has changed. In the face of a global pandemic, the chronic underinvestment in New Jersey public schools that has led to widespread overcrowding is now a potential life-threatening hazard to students, teachers and staff.

To be clear, an overcrowded classroom is never a good idea. In normal times, a hot, stuffy and overcrowded classroom is a serious safety hazard and a poor learning environment. An orderly evacuation in an emergency is more difficult in an overcrowded room. And infectious diseases such as the flu—less deadly than COVID-19, but still dangerous—can spread more quickly.

But these are not normal times. We all have had to learn to live with COVID-19 in our homes, schools and communities. The science shows that this is a highly contagious and lethal disease that spreads mainly through the air, which makes good air quality and improved ventilation more important than ever. This is true for all classrooms, and especially for those operating at a higher than recommended occupancy rating. 

Inspect your space

What can teachers, educational support professionals and other school staff do to reduce risk and keep classrooms as safe as possible? First, inspect your classroom or workspace environment, as well as cafeterias, study halls and other common areas. 

Here are some things to check:

Occupancy rating

Ask your principal or school administrator about the recommended occupancy for your classroom and common areas. The indoor air quality standard from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) “recommends that schools should supply a minimum of 10 cubic feet per minute of fresh outdoor air per person” (emphasis added). That’s a design standard, not an operating standard. Heating, cooling and other mechanisms designed for a room with a recommended occupancy of 25 people won’t be sufficient if you’ve got 40 students.


If there are windows in your room, can they be opened and shut? Opening a window—even just a crack in bad weather—improves air flow and reduces viral risk. 

Heating and cooling systems

Check any radiators or air conditioners in your room. Is there warm air flowing in the winter and cool air during hot weather? It’s alarming how frequently school administrators neglect basic maintenance, such as changing air filters, lubrication or making sure that motors are operating properly. The New Jersey Public Employee Safety and Health (PEOSH) indoor air quality standard requires this maintenance in public buildings. Any public school that is not carrying out proper upkeep of heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems is in violation of state law. 

Are filters available? 

If you’ve got more people than recommended in your classroom, you need more than functioning windows and a properly maintained HVAC system. In this situation, portable filtration with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) device can help remove the airborne materials that spread COVID-19 and other diseases. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a properly installed HEPA unit, with a correct filter, “can theoretically remove at least 99.97% of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria, and any airborne particles with a size of 0.3 microns (µm).

Is your building ventilation system running before and after school? 

Because of the dangers of COVID-19, the New Jersey Department of Public Health recommends that schools “[c]onsider running the HVAC system at maximum outside airflow for two hours before and after the building is occupied.” This air flush at the beginning and end of the day can help remove airborne disease particles and make your building safer. 

Once you’ve inspected your own classroom and common areas, the next step is to get together with your co-workers and union representatives. (See the sidebar for steps the local association can take.)

Funding repairs

Funding is the main reason health and safety issues don’t get fixed. Fortunately, the American Rescue Plan (ARP) and other actions by Congress have provided billions of dollars to New Jersey and other states, specifically earmarked to reopen schools as safely as possible. 

In addition, this past fall, that state launched a program at the New Jersey Board of Public utilities to address ventilation in schools, the School and Small Business Energy Efficiency Stimulus Program. The program provides grants for the repair, maintenance, upgrade, replacement, and installation of certain HVAC systems. More information on the BPU program here.

Debra Coyle is the executive director of the NJ Work Environment Council (WEC). WEC is the state affiliate of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. Coyle can be reached at dcoyle@njwec.org.

What local associations can do:

  • Work with the Health and Safety Committee, if you don’t have one, form a committee, and take concerns to your principal or school administrator.
  • Check your union contract to see if the safety concern is subject to filing a grievance.
  • If you don’t have language in your contract, work to negotiate health and safety language into the contract around temperature, ventilation and occupancy.
  • Organize in your building and district and solicit community support.
  • File a safety complaint with PEOSH. This should only be used as a last resort. The agency is chronically understaffed and generally responds to employee complaints with a letter to the employer, rather than an inspection. 

For more information

American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers 

ASHRAE 62 Ventilation for Acceptable Indoor Air Quality 


New Jersey Indoor Air Quality Standard (NJ IAQ)

NJ Department of Health

Public Employers’ Guide and Model Written Program for the Indoor Air Quality Standard

Tips to Improve Indoor Air Quality

PEOSH Complaint — Instructions and Forms

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

What is a HEPA filter?