Published in the September 2014 NJEA Review
by Frances Gilmore
Overcrowded classrooms can be stuffy and hot and have limited room for activities. They can result in restless, noisy students, making teaching and learning more difficult. Overcrowding in classrooms, as well as in offices and other spaces, may include any or all of the following conditions:
You can work to address these factors through contract language, organizing and sometimes through code adherence.
The Department of Community Affairs (DCA) enforces the fire and building codes. Fire codes primarily address adequate exits and hall space to escape in the case of a fire and usually allow a much larger number of occupants than would be appropriate for teaching. If you think that areas of your school are overcrowded, you can request an inspection from your local fire department.
The building code, or Uniform Construction Code (UCC), may be of use in buildings constructed after 1977, especially with respect to ventilation. Each building is subject to the UCC in effect when it was built. Since the UCC was first adopted in 1977, buildings built before that year are not subject to any UCC code.
Buildings constructed in 2006 or later are covered by ventilation requirements incorporated that year into the UCC. In 2009, the 2006 ventilation rates were unfortunately reduced, but are still valuable.
The New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) has “Facilities Efficiency Standards,” designed for new construction, which are not enforceable, but may be used as guidelines. Appendix A has detailed space and occupancy recommendations by grade level, shown in the graphic above.
If ventilation is inadequate for a room, The Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) standard, N.J.A.C. 12:100-13, of the Public Employee Occupational Safety and Health (PEOSH) program, can help.
Its provisions include:
Note that CO2 at building levels is not itself a harmful contaminant, but as a gas we exhale, it is a good indicator of whether or not there is enough outside air to prevent buildup of contaminants, such as perfumes, perspiration and any odor-causing materials in the room.
Also note that if the ventilation system is in working order but does not maintain appropriate CO2 levels and temperature, the occupancy load is too high for the space.
PEOSH should only be used as a last resort. The agency is understaffed and generally responds to employee complaints with a letter to the employer, rather than an inspection.
Your best bet is to seek contract language around temperature, ventilation and space. In the meantime, you can use your proposed language to organize and demand relief from the school district.
Contract language could include the following:
- CO2 levels are not maintained below 1,000 ppm.
- Temperature is not maintained between 68 and 79 degrees F.
- Classrooms have less than 20 square feet per person.
- A space has neither windows nor mechanical ventilation adequate for the number of people using the space.
Frances Gilmore holds a Master of Science in Industrial Hygiene from the University of Pittsburgh and is a consultant with the New Jersey Work Environment Council, a frequent partner with NJEA on school health and safety concerns.