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In Schools, an Invisible Threat Becomes Clear

by Staff

Since joining The New York Times as a global health and science reporter in May 2020, Apoorva Mandavilli has had one subject top of mind: the coronavirus pandemic.

Ms. Mandavilli’s reporting on Covid-19 reads like a pandemic timeline. She covered the development of the first coronavirus antibody test in the United States; news of the first known Covid variant, discovered in South Africa; and the decision in May by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to scale back case-tracking efforts as the public health emergency came to an end.

In the spring of 2022, Ms. Mandavilli said in a recent interview, “it seemed like everyone moved on and wanted to talk about vaccines and drugs.” But she had a nagging feeling that there was still a story to tell about poor air quality and virus transmission in schools, where students can be vulnerable to the spread of disease.

So she began contacting high schools across the country to learn about their efforts to improve ventilation and air quality. And last fall, she traveled to Colorado and Pennsylvania to witness some of those efforts. Her reporting formed the basis for an article that appeared in The Times last month.

Here, Ms. Mandavilli shares more about her experience visiting schools and how access to funding plays a role in their efforts to help prevent another pandemic. This interview has been edited.

How did you select the schools you visited?

I wanted to look more closely at schools in the middle of the country, rather than those in California and New York, which are written about a lot. What was interesting to me about Colorado, in particular, was the contrast between schools in Denver and Boulder. Denver is a very gritty city; there are schools in neighborhoods that struggle with air quality because of nearby highways and factories. Then you have Boulder High School, which has air purifiers and sensors in nearly every classroom. The differences between Denver and Boulder show what is possible when a school has money and resources.

Was it difficult getting permission to visit?

Definitely. There were schools I reached out to that did not want anything to do with me. I approached a school in Iowa after I came across some of its newsletters; during the pandemic, the school’s administrators were sending out news about school sports, academics and graduation, but they would not discuss Covid-19 or air quality. They were even talking about building new facilities, but it seemed to me that no money was being used to improve air quality. It was missing from the conversation.

I thought that experience was probably representative of a lot of schools in the middle of the country. But a school that isn’t doing something to improve air quality does not want attention. I got lucky with the Colorado schools, in part because I was working with Mark Hernandez, an air quality expert who had been working with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. He was able to get me into some schools.

One of the schools that stood out to me was East High in Denver. Can you share more about your time there?

I spent half a day at East High; it’s a gorgeous school, and the administrators are very proud of it. But the building has been there for quite a long time and some of the windows don’t open. The school also struggles with gun violence; in the spring, a student shot two school administrators. That happened just a few weeks after a student was shot outside the school; he later died. One of the administrators said that opening windows was a good, low-cost way to improve the school’s air quality, but from a safety perspective, they don’t want to do it.

I also talked to students there who had a really tough time during the pandemic because they felt socially disconnected from their peers. During my reporting, I spoke with two students while they were practicing violin in a music room. I asked them if they were worried about the air quality in the room — the fans were off and the windows were closed. But they were just happy to be there in person with their friends.

It was a really interesting contrast when compared with my interview with their music teacher, Keith Oxman. He is in his mid-60s and the oldest teacher on staff. I understood at that moment why this conversation about air quality is so complicated: you have people with different risks, risk tolerances and priorities who are trying to navigate the same set of problems. You’re not going to come to one simple solution that works for everybody.

One of your most surprising findings was that many schools don’t know that government funds are available to improve air quality. Why do you think that is?

It was really shocking. East High is not your average school in that it has a partnership with Dr. Hernandez. When I asked the principal about it, she made this very interesting point. She said there were scholarships for disadvantaged kids, but people didn’t know that money was available, either. It seemed clear to me that it’s not enough to have money. You need schools to know about funding and provide a very easy way for them to apply for it.

You covered the pandemic for three years. What is your day-to-day like now?

It’s a lot more pleasant. I have more time to analyze data and put the things that I read and learn into context. Also, I’ve been writing more about other infectious diseases, like H.I.V. and sexually transmitted infections. Those are not new problems, but during the pandemic I just didn’t have any time to think or write about them.

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