As students return to school this week with masks optional, the state Department of Education found that 73 classrooms in seven schools on Oahu had high levels of carbon dioxide, which is a sign of poor air flow that may contribute to the spread of Covid-19.

The department also said that 1,261 of 12,000 public school classrooms in the state, about 10%, have limited access to outside air because of a reliance on central air conditioning.

Education officials said they were trying to remedy the situation by providing classrooms with box fans with filters, air purifiers and by encouraging open windows. Concern was heightened because of fears that students may be more vulnerable to Covid-19 as the new school year begins without a mask mandate.

“Masking is still highly encouraged and still remains an important mitigation strategy,” Superintendent Keith Hayashi said Tuesday at a news conference. “Improving our ventilation is one of our mitigation strategies. Students and families should be performing daily wellness checks and staying home when sick, practicing good hand hygiene and testing regularly.”

Hayashi also said that the department had notified the principals of the affected schools and parents can access the information on the department’s website.

Kaneohe Elementary School summer school classroom during COVID-19 pandemic. June 12, 2020
The Hawaii Department of Education found that 73 classrooms in seven Oahu schools had unacceptable levels of carbon dioxide. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The DOE said it has bought and distributed 12,000 20-inch box fans to almost every classroom as well as over 4,000 HEPA purifiers for those reliant on air conditioning and lacking windows or doors that open to the outside. It’s also letting schools build do-it-yourself air cleaners using filters and box fans. The Office of Facilities and Operations also said it gave out 600 carbon dioxide sensors.

“That brings the CO2 levels down to the acceptable levels,” Randall Tanaka, assistant superintendent of the Office of Facilities and Operations, told reporters. “It can make a difference in conjunction with opening windows.”

“We know we have some classrooms that don’t have the readily accessible access to outside air because of air conditioning units or how those were built, so that process with the box fans really promotes the exchange of air that really helps us mitigate the level of CO2 in the air,” he added.

The 73 classrooms on Oahu had carbon dioxide levels above 1,500 parts per million, the highest among 335 classrooms that were equipped with carbon dioxide sensors that tracked levels for 12 hours a day on weekdays, excluding holidays and school breaks, as part of a study that began in September 2021 and was conducted by contractors.

The affected schools included Kauluwela Elementary School, Keoneula Elementary School, McKinley High School, Puuhale Elementary, Royal Elementary, Mililani High School and the Mililani Middle School, the DOE said.

“We expect to have those classrooms observed and monitored by the middle of next week, we’ll be in pretty good shape,” Tanaka said. “All those mitigation steps are already in place.”

Andrea Eshelman, deputy director of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which represents 13,700 public school teachers, said the union isn’t sure if the department is doing enough to ensure that classrooms are well ventilated.

The union has been asking the department for data, information and clarity about what they’ve been doing in regards to ventilation measures in the classrooms since the beginning of the pandemic, and concerns have risen as students and educators returned to campus, Eshelman said.

“It became an issue of greater concern when all the schools fully reopened last school year in August,” Eshelman said in an interview, adding that the union sent a letter to the department in September 2021 requesting information.

“We believe that they need to publish a list of the affected classrooms,” she added. “They need to confirm that they have assessed every classroom space. We know that they have pushed out mitigation in the form of the box fans and the filters. We knew about that a year ago.”

Epidemiologist Tim Brown, an infectious disease expert at the East-West Center, said children are especially vulnerable to the highly contagious coronavirus variants as school began in the islands on Monday.

“With schools opening, that’s a real concern because children in schools without masks will transmit BA.5,” he said in an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight” program. “There’s virtually no question of that. They will take it home, and that will give it entry into our multigenerational households in Hawaii. And the people of the greatest risk are elderly.”

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