Yellow-and-black striped tape divides the hallways. Stickers remind students to wear masks and stay six feet apart from one another. Zip ties keep each locker closed and off limits. Gallon-sized pumps of hand sanitizer wait at each school entrance.
These are some of the changes to Bishop Woods Architecture & Design Magnet School that await students when they are scheduled to start some in-person classes on Nov. 9.
Much of the debate about whether to reopen New Haven Public Schools during the Covid-19 pandemic has centered on whether its buildings are ready. The NHPS Board of Education voted to start this fall with 10 weeks of remote school to ensure they could complete a checklist of safety best practices.
One item on the board’s checklist was to hire a third party to do an independent check on school ventilation systems. That company, Fuss & O’Neill, Inc, has checked some schools off its list already, including Bishop Woods. State and local inspectors, as well as Yale public health experts, have been through each building as well.
Charles “Chuck” Tomaso (pictured above) has seen firsthand the waves of recommendations that this attention has produced. As Bishop Woods’ building manager, Tomaso has set up many of the safety measures himself.
Bishop Woods already had a high-quality air filter, a MERV 11. However, air filters rated 13 or above are better at catching airborne viruses, so the district asked Bishop Woods to switch in a MERV 13.
Tomaso did the installation himself with his assistant manager, Paul Giannattasio. It’s quite simple, he said. He demonstrated by shutting down the vibrating metal ductwork hidden on Bishop Woods’ roof and pulling out the filter.
The MERV 13 (pictured above) isn’t made out of a different material than the lower-grade filter, Tomaso explained. It’s thicker, with more layers.
Bishop Woods is a new building, part of New Haven’s school construction boom. The building on Quinnipiac Avenue itself is only 11 years old.
Tomaso said that the waves of inspections didn’t turn up anything his team was doing wrong—it just added more and more safety suggestions. He surveyed his team’s latest handiwork, the striped tape that divides each hallway into a two-way road. Stickers direct the traffic flow.
“The six feet stickers were first, then the arrows. It’s been piecemeal over the past couple of months,” Tomaso said.
Other Covid-era changes included plastic wrap taped around every water fountain …
… plexiglass dividers erected in the reception area and around the school nurse’s desk …
… and a new window cut into the door of one of the school’s two isolation rooms for students with symptoms of Covid-19. Sick students will wait in these rooms while family members come to pick them up. They then go outside to meet their family, rather than allowing family members into the building.
Tomaso didn’t seem upset about the ever-evolving to-do list. He seemed cheerful and proud of his team’s work.
“The most challenging thing is wearing this mask all the time,” he said.
Teaching To Empty Classrooms
While administrators escorted reporters around Bishop Woods’ gleaming facility, around one-third of the school’s teachers led remote school from their empty classrooms.
Kindergarten teacher Tarey Hampton (pictured above) spoke to her computer. In front of her, teal chairs sat neatly on top of three rows of tables. There was one chair per table and each table was pulled up to a half-square of blue tape, measured to maintain six feet between students.
“It made you happy? Would anybody else like to share?” Hampton asked her virtual class.
Small voices tripped over each other to talk about times when someone gave them a gift and how it made them feel.
“Awesome, awesome,” Hampton said, smiling at her screen.
A few classrooms over held the only students in the building, part of the small group of students with disabilities who started in-person classes early.
Third grade teacher Alena Roberts quickly put on her mask when reporters knocked at her classroom door. She was between classes and listening to a science video to prepare.
The plan is for students to stay in the same classroom all day. The teachers who lead special classes like art will come to the students. Each special class will only last one marking period to minimize the number of classes each teacher sees.
Students will eat lunch in their classrooms too, with meals delivered from the cafeteria to them. This has been a concern for parents of children with allergies.
Assistant Principal Flo Crisci (pictured above between Mayor Justin Elicker and Superintendent Iline Tracey) said that all cafeteria food is tailored to avoid allergens like peanuts. Students eat almond butter and jelly sandwiches instead. If students want to bring their own food, the schools makes sure it doesn’t contain anything that would set off another student’s allergic reaction.
Tracey noted another concern that has started floating around recently. She asked the city’s Director of Public Health Nursing Jennifer Allis Vazquez to talk about students with asthma. Vazquez said that nebulizers, which can help turn asthma medication into mist-form, are not recommended because they can increase the risk of spreading the coronavirus. Inhalers are fine though and the district is working with every child with asthma to create their own plan, she said.
After the press conference and school tour, the gaggle of reporters disbanded to get last-minute footage of hallways and return to their cars. Tomaso scuffed a black smudge on the mirror-bright floor with his shoe and noted that he would need to clean that up.
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