Mill Valley School District officials are installing new ventilation equipment and duct work in four classrooms at Strawberry Point Elementary School after teachers found one of the spaces intended for such items empty and covered with rat droppings earlier this month.
The omission, discovered Sept. 9, triggered a letter of outrage from teachers that was read aloud at the Monday board of trustees meeting. The discovery came just as the district’s elementary schools are preparing for an Oct. 12 return to in-person classes.
“How can we communicate return-to-campus options for families when we haven’t guaranteed that all safety measures have been met?” the teachers’ letter said. “Or worse, when our district was completely unaware of missing safety equipment?”
The letter said teachers inadvertently discovered the equipment was missing when they checked to see if the ventilation system was operating during one of the days when wildfire smoke was choking the Marin area.
“You can imagine the shock that was felt by all staff members when a teacher requested to see the MERV-13 (air filter) placement and instead found an empty closet littered with rat feces where a critical HVAC unit was supposed to be.”
Amanda Finlaw, district spokesperson, said Friday that the problem was addressed immediately. The spaces were cleaned and cleared the weekend of Sept. 12-13 and the work completed on Monday, she said. Work was also done in the school’s office on Tuesday.
“Also, measurements for sheet metal fabrication were performed early this week for duct work needed in four furnace rooms,” Finlaw said in an email. “That work is slated for installation the week of Sept. 21.”
Strawberry Point principal Kimberley Russell said she was “pleased with how quickly this situation was addressed.”
“I am confident the heating and ventilation units in all of our classrooms will ensure proper ventilation here at Strawberry Point,” Russell added. “When we return on Oct. 12, we expect to have roughly 112 students on our campus at a time. We are fortunate that all of our classrooms have exterior doors, so we are able to maximize natural ventilation.”
According to Linda Brune and Erin Frazier, co-presidents of the Mill Valley Teachers Association, the discovery “came about because an MCOE (Marin County Office of Education) class of students was on campus receiving instruction and we had a long stretch of very smoky days,” they said in an email.
“The district has taken steps to rectify the situation by ordering the missing HVAC units and is setting a date for installation,” they said.
Brune and Frazier said the union’s current agreement with the district calls for the district to “provide reports from a 3rd party assessment of all the HVAC units at each site prior to a return to in-person learning. The teachers at each site await those reports and have sent requests for them to the district.”
Mary Jane Burke, Marin superintendent of schools, said the MCOE students were moved out of the room as soon as officials were notified about the problem.
“We had a team there the next day moving the class to another location,” she said. “The staff could not have been more cooperative.”
Patrick McLaughlin, a Marin County Office of Education consultant, said the MERV 13 air filters had been installed at Strawberry Point over the summer, but the system was apparently malfunctioning.
“It is my understanding that on Tuesday (Sept. 9), it was discovered that filtered air was emptying into the furnace closet and not into the classroom,” McLaughlin said in an email to county staff. “I also learned, during the system examination it was discovered that the furnace closet, connected to the classroom by a vent, was dirty and had rodent droppings.”
The MCOE class was moved to “a room that has been confirmed to have a ventilation and heating system with proper ducting and a new MERV 13 filter,” McLaughlin said. “The Mill Valley team was at work before 6 a.m. on Wednesday, so when students arrived, their new classroom was ready.”
McLaughlin added that an air purifier had been installed at the school the prior week and was operating inside the same classroom when the teacher’s discovery was made.
“We can feel reassured that we had ‘redundancy’ in the system by having the new air purifier in the room while serving students,” he said. “It is noted that the air purifier has been moved with the students to (the new classroom) and this redundancy continues for our students and staff ongoing.”
According to the teachers’ letter, air quality has been an issue at school buildings during prior wildfire-triggered smoky periods in 2015, 2017 and 2018.
“Inside air quality and ventilation in Mill Valley classrooms has been an issue for years, yet teachers have been reassured by district administrators and directors that HVAC systems are in place and fully operational,” they said.
Strawberry Point’s virus safety plan is listed on the Marin County Office of Education website at marinschools.org as being approved and meeting all virus safeguard standards. The document, officially known as a school-site-specific protection plan, is required before any school can be approved to open for in-person classroom instruction.
Dr. Matt Willis, Marin public health officer, said the plan template is offered as a “line-by-line checklist” for schools to use as guidance to prepare them for allowing students back to classrooms. Public health staff reviews the plans for completeness, but “not as a regulatory function,” Willis said.
County staff do not go out to the schools to inspect facilities or to confirm that virus safeguards listed in the plan are in place, he said.
“It’s up to the schools to offer to us their attestation of their standards,” Willis said. “It’s up to the school staff, the maintenance department and community to make a determination of their own readiness.”