New Jersey school district delays in-person learning due to air filter issues

NEW JERSEY (WABC) -- A New Jersey school district has delayed in-person learning because of air filter issues.

A letter was sent to parents in the South Orange/Maplewood School District from the superintendent Tuesday indicating air filters that were said to be updated with a MERV 16 rating were never installed.

"Specifically, during our October 19, Board of Education meeting, after verification from our Facilities Department lead, we shared that our univents (unit-ventilation boxes in each classroom) had been updated with filters with a Merv 16 rating," Superintendent of Schools Dr. Donald Taylor said. "Unfortunately, our extensive inspection and investigation revealed that this was simply not true. Filters were not installed as had been reported throughout all District classrooms. In fact, the vendor was not contacted until after verification paperwork was submitted to the District. In order to prepare for students/staff to return to our buildings, every uninvent (approximately 1000) will need to be reviewed and reassessed to ensure all units have been updated; additionally, the univents are only capable of using a filter with a maximum Merv 8 rating."

The school district says it is aware that sharing the information may create additional concerns among their staff an families.

"We believe transparency is vital in earning our community's confidence," Taylor said. "We are unable to provide details related to personnel matters; however, please know that we hold our administration to the highest level of accountability and integrity, as we view ourselves as servant leaders to our community. We also preface this message by acknowledging responsibility in our chain of command including oversight that ultimately ends with me as the Chief School Administrator/Superintendent of Schools."

Taylor says the school district has had conversations with their vendor and have been informed that the filters are inexpensive and can be quickly installed once received.

"However, as you can imagine, the filters that we seek are in great demand," he said. "Our vendor believes we can complete our project, which also includes repairing motors and blowers in each univent as needed, in between six-to-eight weeks. Please remember that the repair/replacement of our HVAC systems is a part of our planned district-wide construction improvement project."

The school district says it plans to reopen for in-person learning on January 19.

"Given the upcoming holidays and the difficulties many are facing (and will face due to staff quarantines), this date also allows for personal quarantining for any in our school community who travel for the winter break without the need for substitutes and the accompanying disruption to educational services," Taylor said.

Isaac Rothbart is a parent of twins in the school district. He says this isn't about whether schools should be hybrid or all virtual, it's about accountability and a breach of faith by district leaders.

He's among many parents speaking out.

"It's unclear from the email who didn't do their job," Rothbart said. Someone very senior did not do their job."

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