Open the classroom windows

NOTE:  It appears New Mexico readers agree with me on this topic.  I have received more comment on this article than on any of my other columns except those about horses.

Classrooms do not need windows, the architect assured me.

They are a distraction. They invite students to look out the window instead of paying attention to the class.

It was 1970-something, and the architect was giving me a tour of the brand new Taos Junior High School in advance of a ceremonial ribbon cutting, featuring Harry Wugalter, head of what was then called the Public School Finance Division of the Department of Finance and Administration, the highest ranking school official in the state. (I’m namedropping for the amusement of readers like me with long New Mexico memories.)

Schools and other public buildings were sprouting all over New Mexico, thanks to the booming oil and gas industry and to the newly created Severance Tax Permanent Fund.

Art Trujillo, who owned a city planning and architecture firm in Santa Fe, understood the technicalities of obtaining the funding. He was the big-city expert consulting to small-town school boards and county commissions. He would later become mayor of Santa Fe.

I was puzzled by those austere new windowless classrooms where modern ventilation systems were to replace fresh air and visual inspiration had been removed from the curriculum.

This was in Taos, mind you, where the air was as clear as crystal and almost any window in almost any building opened to some of the most celebrated views in the world.

These days, when I walk my dog, I pass by the blank brick walls of windowless classrooms on the grounds of a mostly closed school built in the same era.

Several teachers come to the building every day, doing their remote teaching from their desks rather than home. A special education teacher told me he thinks his students feel reassured seeing him at his desk, from their home computer screens. A couple of these classrooms have doors directly to the outside. In warmer weather the teachers propped those doors open.

Passing those classrooms I am reminded of that long-ago conversation and how absurd I thought it was to build classrooms without windows. I wonder whether that architectural standard was applied to schools all over the state, and whether our school districts are still using those buildings.

We are all impatient to reopen the schools safely. The governor has recently announced we’re going to start, but the risk of virus spread is not over. While the pandemic continues, one critical element in safety is ventilation. The ventilation has to be powerful enough to blow deadly virus particles – should there be an infected person in the classroom – out of the building before they infect anyone else.

The state Public Education Department has issued CDC-derived guidelines to all schools. The top recommendation is to install air filters with a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value or MERV of 13 or higher if possible. These filters can trap smaller particles, including viruses.

Schools where those filters don’t fit the air conditioning systems will have to employ other adaptations, including supplemental portable fans, air purifiers, and open windows – all to assure that the air not only moves around, but moves out of the building. That is so much easier to achieve with windows that open.

There are legitimate reasons for having no operable windows in public buildings. I’ve been told by experts that people will open them, disrupt the balance of the ventilation and waste energy. Another reason is that unruly children will jump out. Really? Those reasons are not enough for me.

We probably will not see school districts knocking holes in brick walls to install windows when it’s so much easier to plug in a fan. And yet this pandemic is a lesson. Power outages come to mind. There are times when having the choice to open a window outweighs other considerations.

I hope someone is updating the architecture manuals.

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