For the past six months, as a new wave of the coronavirus pandemic and wildfires raged in California and imperiled the health of students across the Valley, Fresno Unified failed to spend any money on HEPA filter machines that would have made its classrooms safer from COVID-19 and the hazards of wildfire smoke.
This failure came even as Fresno Unified received an unprecedented $703 million in federal pandemic relief funds and even as district officials pledged more than a year ago to evaluate and implement a program to put High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters in every classroom, according to official documents and dozens of interviews with teachers, administrators and parents.
Such a clean-air program had been the expressed desire of the community. In a series of meetings last summer to decide how best to spend the pandemic relief funds, parents and teachers told the school district that classroom air quality, filtration and ventilation was one of their top priorities.
More than four months ago, during the worst smoke of wildfire season, FUSD Trustee Veva Islas revealed at a board meeting that desperate teachers were having to buy their own air filtration machines for their classrooms.
Fresno Unified’s failure to equip its classrooms with HEPA filters came at the same time that other local school districts were spending millions of dollars in federal relief funds to install the machines and provide clean air to their students.
Fresno Unified is now scrambling to equip its classrooms with HEPA filters, but the district’s delay, critics point out, has only deepened the inequality for those who happen to live in the district’s pollution-burdened zip codes.
Children living in the most impoverished neighborhoods in south Fresno have been forced to attend schools where classrooms are filled with smoke, air pollution and viral particles. Meanwhile, children only 15 miles northeast in Clovis Unified have been breathing air that is cleaned four times an hour — air that is 99.98% free of particulates.
“It’s very sad, especially for the children. The district has the resources to improve the air. Why haven’t they?” asked Bella Bolanos, whose 13-year-old son attends Tioga Middle School. “It’s unfair that they have chosen to go this route considering what other school districts have done. I’m doing my part at home to contain the virus. I thought the school district would be doing the same.”
How many students have caught COVID-19 in FUSD classrooms — and to what degree this is attributable to poor filtration and ventilation — is impossible to track.
What is clear is that student absentee rates at Fresno Unified have shot up to unprecedented levels this school year, according to teachers and administrators. A recent board communication said that nearly half of the district’s students had been chronically absent since August.
About 45% of student absences were attributed to illness and quarantine. Entire grade levels at some Fresno Unified schools have been shut down in recent weeks due to COVID-19. In contrast, a principal at a Clovis Unified elementary school reported that even during the worst waves of the pandemic, less than 2% of students missed school time due to illness.
FUSD Superintendent Bob Nelson would not answer a list of questions emailed to him about how the district had spent its federal relief funds and why it had neglected to provide healthy classrooms for its 65,000 students.
FUSD spokesperson Nikki Henry also did not respond to those questions and multiple phone calls over a six-week period.
A Public Records Act request under California law was also filed, seeking all internal documents about planned upgrades to the ventilation and filtration systems.
But the school district ignored the dictates of the statute and failed to deliver the documents at the initial 10-day deadline, and then again after a 30-day extension. Fresno Unified failed to produce a single document over a 70-day period.
Then on Jan. 28, as this story was nearing completion, Henry sent an email to the reporter saying the district had suddenly decided it was going to put HEPA filters in every classroom. She quoted Chief Operations Officer Karin Temple, who said, “the units are expected to be available for distribution in 2-3 weeks.”
But the machines that Fresno Unified plans to use have nowhere near the filtration capacity of machines that other school districts have installed. For example, the HEPA filters at Clovis Unified are 25 times more powerful than the models Fresno Unified has chosen. Because of this power difference, the machines in Fresno Unified won’t clean spaces polluted with virus and smoke nearly as well as the machines in Clovis.
Fresno teachers, parents question FUSD’s COVID spending plan
Except for Los Angeles Unified, no school district in California has received more pandemic relief funds than FUSD. Of the $703 million that came in three allotments, at least $200 million directly qualified for systems to improve air filtration and ventilation. But instead of buying and installing HEPA filter machines at the beginning of the school year, Fresno Unified purchased small 12-volt plug-in machines.
The spec sheet for these devices shows that they are little more than a UV light with a miniature fan attached.
The manufacturer markets it as a pet dandruff deodorizer that can also remove the odors of marijuana and curry. Teachers say the devices are clearly not designed to filter indoor air pollution at the levels found in their classrooms. They say the district’s six-month-long delay to utilize HEPA filtration is inexcusable.
“Proper air filtration was a requirement to start face-to-face (classes) last year and it still hasn’t been done,” said Tamara Norris, who teaches at Roosevelt High School. “The amount of sarcastic hilarity that this (plug-in) device is supposed to filter air for all of us would be amazing, if it weren’t so grossly negligent,” she said.
A teacher at Hoover High School, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation, shrugged when asked about the tiny device handed out by the school district eight months ago. “It’s a glorified Glade plug-in,” she said. “Why run the thing? You’d have to be an idiot to think that the machine is doing anything beneficial.”
Instead of industrial-grade HEPA filters, the district chose to spend its federal funds on things not prioritized by parents or community members at the district’s summer meetings. For instance, Fresno Unified has spent $24 million on digital platforms, $31 million on a new teacher recruitment pipeline, $26 million on “virtual field trips” and $50 million in unspecified facilities improvements, which include the district’s new LTE cellular network.
“If they have the funds, why wouldn’t they want to clean up the air for the kids?” said Genevieve Jaime, a Fresno Unified parent. “It’s a big concern. I don’t know why they wouldn’t make the air more comfortable and healthy for the kids.”
Air quality readings taken with a handheld sensor at Fresno Unified facilities this past wildfire season showed that even the district’s newest buildings, with the most modern HVAC systems, are failing to filter air pollution.
At Bullard High School, a new building completed in 2019 registered a classroom AQI of 135 — unhealthy for sensitive groups, which includes all children 18 years and younger. Inside the school’s 4-year-old north gym, a volleyball game was played while the indoor AQI was 130. At Hoover High, the five-year-old science building had an AQI of 110. Nearly every classroom in the district sampled for this story had indoor AQIs over 100.
Molly Smith said her daughter Lily entered kindergarten at Forkner Elementary in northwest Fresno this past August. The wildfire smoke, both inside and outside the classroom, was so pervasive that the 6-year-old had a severe allergic reaction. As her condition grew more severe, she was forced to miss her second week of school.
Smith, a lecturer in Construction Management and Architecture at Fresno State who teaches classes on indoor air ventilation, said the family had installed multiple HEPA filters in their home to keep the AQI low. She wondered why the school district had not done the same.
“I hope that the school district would be at least changing the filters. Checking the filters in the air systems frequently,” Smith said. “I would hope that the district’s doing something, and I don’t know what would be holding them up.”
Why Fresno Unified didn’t buy large HEPA filters earlier remains unclear
From Manteca to Modesto to Clovis to Sanger, school districts opened the new school year by spending millions of dollars to deliver clean air to their classrooms. Manteca Unified School District, which has 23,500 students, outfitted its fleet of school buses with filtration units that scrub the air up to 12 times an hour.
Sanger Unified, which has 11,000 students, bought an arsenal of HEPA units, bipolar ionizers, carbon catalyst filters and air oxygenation systems.
Modesto City School District, which has 32,000 students, installed HEPA filters in each of its classrooms.
At Clovis Unified, with a student population of 43,000, the combined dangers of COVID and wildfire smoke compelled the district to install 6-foot-tall HEPA filters in every classroom.
“It’s not like we’re going to wake up in a week or two, and all of a sudden indoor air quality is not an issue,” said Denver Stairs, Clovis Unified’s facilities superintendent.
Clovis Unified spent $4.3 million of its $106 million in COVID relief funds to purchase HEPA-grade Carrier air filtration units — the same machines named by Time Magazine as one of the top inventions of 2020. The district’s rollout program employed a dozen custodial staff and two semi-trucks to install the districtwide system in a matter of 10 days.
Clovis Unified took multiple measures to avoid disrupting the class environment while completing the project. The district installed the machines in the early mornings and at lunch, when students were out of class. To quiet the sound of the fresh air’s flow, the district put diffusers over the machine’s ducts.
Stairs worried that the modular steel units he judged as “ugly” would unsettle the surroundings of familiar classrooms. But Clovis teachers hosted decorating and naming contests for the air-scrubbing machines. Robots and scarecrows have become the most common way of dressing them up.
“They’re just another piece of furniture in the classroom now … they don’t even realize that they’re there anymore,” Stairs said.
Nearly every indoor space in Clovis Unified — with the exception of locker rooms, because the doors stay open so often — is now filtered by the machines.
“We now feel like we’re exceeding the standard and we’re giving our kids and our teachers the best environment for them to come in and learn,” Stairs said. He added that the district is doing all it can to keep kids learning in classrooms for more days of the school year. “This technology will help us reduce the number of flu and strep throat cases. This technology is helping everybody stay healthy in another way.”
Sanger Unified has taken a similar approach by spending more than $2 million of its $52 million CARES Act funds to acquire HEPA filter machines and other air-cleansing technologies for all its indoor spaces.
“Taking the opportunity to do these upgrades is going to benefit us on multiple levels,” said Sanger Unified Facilities Manager Ryan Kilby. “We all know about COVID. But what about the flu? What about the cold? What about the horrible air from wildfires? All of those things are very impactful in the Central Valley. To have the opportunity to have very clean air in all our spaces when the air is really bad outside, students can play or exercise in the gym safely, because the air is clean.”
Kilby said that the district’s upgrades scrub the air 6-12 times per hour. For larger indoor spaces where vigorous activity occurs, like gyms, Kilby said Sanger Unified has installed “super-suckers,” massive HEPA filters with air oxygenation systems attached.
At the outset, Fresno Unified seemed to be on the same course.
In January 2021, in its COVID-19 Safety Plan, the district identified the need for HEPA filters. The district pledged to evaluate and implement a roll-out of the machines if COVID-19 cases exceeded more than 20 students and staff at a school site in any given month.
But even as COVID cases and wildfire smoke continued to reach new peaks, the notion of implementing HEPA filters never gained any momentum. The need for the machines never seemed to become an urgent matter at any level inside Fresno Unified – not with the superintendent, not with his top staff and not with the school board, documents and interviews show.
Islas, who has consistently been the board’s most outspoken voice for student health, could not explain why the district had failed to heed her warning back in September about virus and smoke-polluted classrooms.
In an interview on Jan. 17, Islas she said she hadn’t tracked the matter sufficiently and did not know what steps, if any, the district had taken to improve classroom air. “I wish I had a really well-informed response. I don’t,” she said. “We were trying to make sure the right filters were being used in our HVAC system. But I don’t think that there was ever any report back from (staff) about this idea of purification systems in classrooms.”
Climate models predict that the Valley’s air basin will become more frequently polluted with wildfire smoke for at least the next decade because of increasing aridity and fuel build-up in the Sierra Nevada. Filtering out wildfire pollution in classrooms is now viewed by many school districts in the state as vital to their educational mission.
Top scientists who study the neurological effects of air quality say that bad air in classrooms impairs students in a number of ways. Childhood exposure to air pollution particulate matter is tied to ADHD, autism, impaired memory and reduced white matter density.
Wildfire smoke likely has more severe effects on brain health than regular air pollution. The smoke’s cocktail of ultra-fine microplastics and heavy metals have been found to penetrate deeply into internal organs and induce inflammation across the lungs and brain.
Researchers have found that smoke-induced brain inflammation persists long after the initial lung inflammation has subsided. The brain’s immune support cells vital for learning and memory formation are instead diverted to defend against wildfire pollutants that cross the blood-brain barrier. The neurochemicals needed to master reading, writing and math are literally starved by the brain’s occupation with defending itself from wildfire pollution.
After Los Angeles Unified School District installed HEPA filters in their classrooms in 2016, student performance increased the same amount as if the district had cut class sizes by a third. Improving classroom air in badly polluted neighborhoods was a highly cost-effective strategy to reduce “pervasive test scores gaps that plague public education,” the study concluded.
Consider the pollution that Fresno Unified students endure both inside and outside the classroom. Half of the state’s 10 most-polluted census tracts fall within Fresno Unified’s boundaries, according to the state EPA.
Decades of highway development, waste disposal plants, warehousing and industrial waste in central Fresno have made ozone and particulate matter pollution a suffocating fact of life for many of the district’s families. So suffocating, in fact, that a person living in a southwest Fresno zip code dies, on average, 20 years sooner than someone who lives in a northwest Fresno zip code.
Consider, too, the profound achievement gap that continues to define a student’s life at Fresno Unified.
Only two other major school districts in the country have seen a bigger decline in their student math test scores over the last decade than Fresno Unified, according The Nation’s Report Card, a website that tracks education progress.
By 2019, Fresno Unified sat among the bottom four school districts in the nation for math test scores. At Hoover High School, the drop in test scores has underscored the racial disparities in Fresno Unified. According to the district’s data dashboard, 14% of the school’s white students were proficient in math in 2018. The proficiency rate for Asians was 16% and for Latinos, 9%. Among Hoover High’s 157 black students, not a single one was proficient in math.
In October 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the district issued a board resolution titled “In the Matter of Support of the Declaration of Being an Anti-Racist Institution.” The resolution recognized that structural racism has led to “deepening racial disparities across all sectors of society” and has had “a lasting negative consequence for our communities, cities and nation.”
The board also acknowledged the impact of racism on academic outcomes and committed itself to “evaluating and dismantling practices and policies that lead to disproportionate outcomes for students according to race.”
Clean-air advocates say that in light of Fresno’s history, which has reinforced the relationship between race and land-use, race and unsafe work, race and pollution, it would be essential for any local education agency claiming to have internalized the ethos of the racial justice movement to at least give their students a classroom environment free of air pollution.
“People want to define, in their own mind, what Black Lives Matter means,” said Ivanka Saunders, policy advocate for Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. “It’s not just about police brutality and injustice in our legal system. It is a phrase that can be used in environmental justice … where the kids with the worst asthmatic rates are still the kids that you’re doing the least for.”
“It is a question of what are you willing to do for folks that are not of your so-called most valuable class of people?” she said
Kevin Hamilton, CEO of the Central California Asthma Collaborative, said Fresno Unified students, as a matter of social justice, as a matter of public health, deserve to breathe clean air in their classrooms everyday. “The fact that the district got $700 million in COVID relief, and has only spent $50 million of that on facilities upgrades, is a travesty,” he said. “Their investments should have been pushed, first and foremost, toward improving the health of the children in their district. And investing in clean air in their classrooms would have been a primary way to do that.”
How did Fresno Unified spend its COVID-relief funds?
But even as Fresno Unified has officially recognized the problem of the color line in Fresno and has committed to mitigating its harms, the district has floundered in delivering a safe and healthy environment for its staff and students.
A chronology of the past eight months helps explain how a school district with the biggest bounty of federal relief funds in the Valley neglected to do right by its students in the midst of a once-in-a-century health crisis. The chronology shows that Fresno Unified chose to spend a large amount of those dollars on expensive high-tech solutions to reach children whose education has been interrupted by the pandemic.
And yet, at the same time, it ignored the solution of HEPA filters to maintain the health of its students and help keep them in the classroom. No matter the surges of virus and smoke over the past several months, the school district did not alter its path, teachers and principals say.
Last May, as in-person instruction returned to schools, the U.S. Department of Education required school districts to describe how COVID relief funds would be used to address each of the CDC’s safety recommendations. These included maintaining healthy facilities and improving indoor air ventilation.
Fresno Unified’s official response to the requirement promised to evaluate HEPA filtration units or other air cleaning systems and determine if they reduced “the risk of transmission and implement their use to the degree feasible.” Two months later, a FUSD pandemic expenditure plan highlighted “planned investments” in “classroom ventilation upgrades.”
As the school doors opened, FUSD assured students, teachers and parents in staff briefings and a districtwide newsletter that measures had been taken to properly ventilate classrooms with plug-in air purifiers and portable air filtration systems. “As we were coming back to in-person instruction, we were told by them that these (air plug-ins) were in compliance in regards to being able address the COVID needs,” Fresno Teachers Association President Manuel Bonilla recalled.
But the plug-ins the district distributed to every classroom were clearly not adequate for ensuring the safety of those classrooms, teachers said. To look at the machines, they said, was to know they were not up to the task. The Fresno Unified device is little more than a shoe box, compared with the linebacker-sized bulwark that Clovis Unified has installed.
At a Sept. 15, 2021, school board meeting, Trustee Islas indicated that teachers had already soured on the district’s plug-in. “Teachers are having to exhaust their personal resources to get air filtration, air cleaning units,” she said.
At the same board meeting, Fresno Unified Executive Officer Tammy Townsend reported that nearly every community group the district solicited had ranked the upgrading of classroom air ventilation and filtration as one of its top priorities. They wanted those upgrades to come out of the remaining $387 million in CARES Act money.
Townsend emphasized that students and staff repeatedly complained that many of the district’s air ventilation and conditioning units didn’t work during the hottest months of the year. “The air is bad even when we do not have COVID,” the district quoted an English-language learner at one of the community meetings.
The week after the Sept. 15 board meeting, Temple, FUSD’s operations chief officer, wrote a memo pledging that the district was taking “immediate actions to improve classroom ventilation.”
Temple did not mention any plans to equip classrooms with HEPA filters. Rather, she announced an ambitious, long-term $100 million project to upgrade the district’s heating, ventilation and cooling systems at scores of schools. These upgrades would allow the district to utilize MERV-13 filters, a type of high-efficiency filter.
The next month, on Oct. 27, the school board passed a nearly $400 million spending plan. Once again, documents show, not a single dollar was committed to HEPA filters.
As a more contagious strain of COVID-19 surged in January, the Fresno Teachers Association argued that holes in the district’s health and safety measures had become even more stark. In a Jan. 5 letter to Fresno Unified management, the FTA requested a list of immediate upgrades to air ventilation and other safety measures. “The fact that updated air filtration even needs to be in this list is very telling that the district has not taken things seriously,” said teacher Tamara Norris.
In response to the FTA letter, the district claimed it had already upgraded classroom air ventilation, in part by citing the UV-light plug-ins.
It wasn’t until Jan. 28, when Fresno Unified had run up against its deadline to provide documents for this story, that the district announced plans to buy and install HEPA filters for each of their classrooms. By that time, Islas had pressed the school district about its response to air filtration and ventilation and Bonilla had written to Superintendent Nelson demanding a district-wide roll-out of HEPA filters.
Islas said she was disappointed that the district took so long to do the right thing.
“We’re getting routine messages about our classes having to close where there are students who are medically fragile,” she said. “Why weren’t these measures taken with more action? More expediency? I am hoping we learned from this.”
But the HEPA filters the district is now attempting to buy raise a whole new set of questions.
An analysis of the device’s spec sheet lists a maximum filtration rate of 60 cubic feet of air every minute. In comparison, Clovis Unified’s machines filter 1,500 cubic feet of air every minute. Where Clovis Unified has put one machine, Fresno Unified would need 25 of theirs. Where Clovis is filtering a 750-square-foot classroom twelve times an hour, Fresno machines would need 2 hours to filter the air just once. The HEPA filters FUSD is bringing in won’t even meet the minimum filtration rate recommended by the EPA and CDC.
As for the ambitious, long-term HVAC upgrades that Temple promised would change the internal air filtration systems across the district, she now concedes that the project will take years to complete.
Fresno teacher keeps classroom door open during winter
This past January, teacher Janice Marshall stood in her 30-year-old portable classroom at Bullard Talent, one of the district’s schools-of-choice that draws students from across the city.
She had spent the day teaching math and art to sixth-graders who had no benefit of adequate filtration or access to a modern HVAC unit. All winter, inside one of the most dilapidated facilities in the district, Marshall had to keep her classroom door open to get enough fresh air circulating among her students.
She said the district’s measures to improve classroom ventilation hadn’t been enough to make them safe. This has left her with the impossible task of keeping at bay air pollution, COVID-19 and the cold draft of January.
Any way she turns, she says, the learning environment is compromised. She wonders if the district’s version of a HEPA filter will get the job done.
“The kids sit by the door and say ‘Ms. Marshall, can we close the door? It’s kind of cool outside.’ I tell them no, because we need the ventilation. I am especially concerned because it’s not safe for the students and it’s not the best learning environment. We have kids who have chronic diseases. We have kids with ailments. We have kids with asthma.”
“The district knows where to find us when they want people to sing and dance and put on a show. But other than that, we don’t get a lot of attention in terms of keeping up our facilities.”
Gregory Weaver is a freelance journalist based in California’s central San Joaquin Valley. This story was written in partnership with the Education Lab at The Fresno Bee. He can be reached at email@example.com.