Erie School District ready to begin ventilation fixes

Ed Palattella
The Erie School District's schools, including McKinley Elementary School, 933 E. 22nd St., are scheduled to undergo ventilation repairs so elementary school students can return to in-person classes sometime after Nov. 4, the end of the first quarter, amid the COVID-10 pandemic. The Erie School Board is scheduled to award bids for the work on Monday.

The Erie School District had planned to upgrade ventilation systems at its 16 school buildings as part of the $80.8 million renovation plan the district launched in 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic led the district to act on the repairs more quickly. The drive to make the fixes will pick up speed at a special meeting of the Erie School Board at noon on Monday.

The board is scheduled to vote on awarding bids for the ventilation repairs. The meeting will be virtual.

The aim is to get the work done in time so that, pending School Board approval, elementary school students can start attending in-person and online classes on alternating days beginning sometime in the second quarter of 2020-21, which starts Nov. 5.

The first quarter, in which district students are taking online-only classes, started Sept. 8.

One contract to be awarded on Monday is for the work on the ventilation systems. The other is an electrical contract related to the ventilation upgrades, said Neal Brokman, the Erie School District’s executive director of operations. He estimated the total cost of the work at $1.5 million.

The upgrades will include equipping existing and new air-handling units with ultraviolet lights and what is known as bipolar ionization technology, Brokman said.

Ultraviolet lights help kill viruses and bacteria, and negative ions help remove fine particles from the air and reduce the amount of airborne pathogens, including viruses, according to an air-quality improvement report that the Erie School District prepared for the ventilation repairs.

Though the COVID-19 outbreak prompted the need for immediate upgrades of the ventilation systems at Erie School District schools, the changes “should cut down on the transmission of any virus, even the common cold or during flu season,” Brokman said.

The district received three quotes each for the ventilation upgrades and electrical work by Thursday at 4 p.m., the quote deadline, Brokman said. The School Board on Monday will vote to award the work based on the quotes received.

The School Board is awarding the contracts in an expedited process after the state approved the use of emergency contract procedures. The reason: the need to get the ventilation repairs done more quickly than usual in light of the pandemic and to allow for a potential return to in-person elementary school classes sometime after Nov. 5.

The streamlined process — the Erie School District also awarded emergency bids for repairs after the fire at Erie High School in May 2017 — allows the district to accept quotes rather than competitive bids and reduces the amount of time that typically must elapse before the district can award contracts.

The 11,000-student Erie School District for years put off capital projects, including ventilation repairs, as it struggled through its protracted financial crisis. The district’s receipt, starting in 2018, of $14 million in additional state aid enabled Erie schools Superintendent Brian Polito to fund the $80.8 million districtwide renovation plan, which included repairs to ventilation systems at the district’s 16 school buildings.

The ventilation work had yet to start when the pandemic shut down schools statewide in March. The need for repairs, as well as a surge in local COVID-19 cases, led Polito in August to shift the district’s health and safety plan for reopening to online-only instruction from a hybrid approach, in which students would attend in-person classes on some days and learn remotely on others.

Elementary school students are to start the hybrid plan after Nov. 4, pending School Board approval and based on the status of the ventilation repairs and the trajectory of COVID-19 cases. The ventilation repairs at nine of the district’s 10 elementary schools are expected to occur relatively swiftly. Edison Elementary School needs more major repairs.

Based on what the School Board decides, “we want to make sure the buildings are ready to accept students,” Brokman said, referring to the repairs at the elementary schools.

Middle school and high school students will learn online-only through at least the spring as the school district deals with major ventilation issues at Edison; Wilson Middle School, one of its three middle schools; and the three buildings that house classes for high school students: Erie High, Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy and the former Emerson-Gridley building, the site of the district’s alternative-education programs.

Under the revised health and safety plan, Edison students would go to East Middle School while the ventilation system at Edison gets repaired and middle and high school students take online-only classes. The district in 2021 plans to bid out construction work, including ventilation repairs, for Edison and for more work at Erie High, Brokman said.

Contact Ed Palattella at Follow him on Twitter @ETNpalattella.

To watch the Erie School Board’s special meeting at noon on Monday, go to