Clean air in schools could become New Mexico law

Public School Ventilation Act would help keep students, staff and teachers healthy, sponsor says

By: - January 17, 2023 4:04 am

Under the Public School Ventilation Act, portable filtration systems like this one at a private school in Albuquerque would be used only when the central HVAC system can’t do the job. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Even though New Mexico requires public schools to upgrade their heating and air conditioning systems to clean indoor air well enough to remove coronavirus and other harms, people can’t just look up whether their local school district actually meets those standards.

A legislative proposal — with backing from unions representing New Mexico teachers and sheet metal workers — seeks to change that.

COVID is highlighting the need for action on ventilation systems, said Rep. Christine Chandler. She and Rep. Joy Garratt, a former educator, are sponsoring House Bill 30, which would create the Public School Ventilation Act.

“Having good airflow and good systems in place will affect staff health and student health in a way that’s very important,” Chandler said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 95% of all children in the U.S. have been infected at least once.

States have been slow to act on ventilation, she said, even though the Environmental Protection Agency has been raising it as an issue and not getting much traction, either.

“We don’t have the staff or capacity at PED to go out there and go verify every single building in doing that,” said Antonio Ortiz, finance and operations director of the New Mexico Public Education Department in an interview last year.

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The federal government has allocated millions of dollars in pandemic relief to pay for filters and upgrades. The American Rescue Plan Act recognizes that ventilation systems need to be upgraded, Chandler said, so the bill is timely in terms of public awareness of the need to address this issue.

Improving ventilation would reduce rates of influenza and asthma, she said, which will increase student attendance and participation. It should also reduce levels of carbon monoxide in schools, which will help everyone, students, staff and teachers alike, she said.

“It sounds like a mundane contract bill, but it’s a bill that has genuine health effects that could be very supportive of students, teachers and educators at the schools,” Chandler said. “There are a lot of people impacted by ensuring that there is a safe environment in the school systems across the state.”

Parents have also been raising concerns about ventilation systems in schools with Chandler. She received an email from a parent on Thursday asking about the ventilation system in the Los Alamos Public Schools system because they want to relocate and want to know what the standards are so they can see whether they think the school district is a safe place to put their children.

A medical study published in December shows that 45% of COVID cases — including in children — lead to lingering symptoms.

Highest-quality filters required

Source New Mexico’s reporting raised questions about which schools installed necessary technology and strong enough filters, and showed that state officials have not done any systematic review to determine if schools are following requirements.

“This bill would require an assessment of all ventilation systems in the schools, across the board,” Chandler said.

The language in the pre-filed bill requires those reviews to be done every five years — and for those records to be public.

It requires the evaluations to include testing the best possible filter efficiency, and corrective actions like replacing old filters with ones rated as MERV-13 or better. Those are good enough to pull COVID-19 aerosols, and other viruses and pollutants, out of the air.

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It also requires measuring airflow, verifying maintenance, putting in carbon dioxide sensors, and collecting data for the installation of permanent HVAC systems where they don’t exist.

Under the bill, portable filtration and air cleaners found in some schools and health facilities in New Mexico would be used in schools only when the central HVAC system can’t do the job.

This is not the first time the bill has been introduced, Chandler said. When a similar measure made its way through the legislative session in 2021, it was approved by the House of Representatives and one Senate committee but never got a vote by the full Senate.

The American Federation of Teachers New Mexico and the Sheet Metal Air Rail & Transportation Workers Local 49 raised the issue with Chandler last year, she said. But 2022 had only a shorter, 30-day, budget-focused legislative session. Any non-budget bills needed to be put on the call by the governor, so they didn’t actively pursue it, she said.

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.