3 key technologies for better COVID cleaning in schools

Schools should consider three alternative technologies that hospitals have been using for years to remove harmful microbials both on surfaces and in the air.
By: | February 23, 2021

Mike Crumlin “MAC” leads the business development activity for School Specialty.

For students and staff to return to school safely amid the COVID-19 pandemic, schools must have a solution for disinfecting learning spaces that is effective and that stakeholders can fully trust.

Currently, the most popular strategies employed by schools are disinfecting surfaces with chemical sprays and using low-rated MERV filters to purify the air that people breathe. Yet, both methods have shortcomings that could put teachers, students, and staff at risk.

For instance, although chemical sprays are EPA-approved, they could still pose health risks, especially for individuals who have asthma, allergies, or other respiratory issues. No one really knows the long-term health effects of spraying powerful chemicals so frequently within enclosed spaces that might have poor ventilation, particularly when these spaces are used for hours at a time by teachers, staff, and children.

MERV stands for “minimum efficiency reporting value” and is a measurement scale from 1 to 20 designed by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) to report the effectiveness of air filters. Unfortunately, because of the age of many HVAC systems in schools today, the best many school sites can do is the employment of MERV 5 to MERV 7 filters.  While these MERV ratings are good at trapping many pollutants like dust, pollen, and mold, they fall short in terms of providing an adequate defense against bacteria and viruses like SARS-CoV-2.

High-efficiency particulate arresting (HEPA) filters are better, but the filters must be replaced periodically as recommended by the manufacturer (such as every six weeks for some products). Changing them regularly requires a lot of discipline, not to mention money and staff time. Even if the filters are changed regularly, they still aren’t 100-percent effective.

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Fortunately, there are better ways to clean and disinfect learning spaces. Here are three alternative technologies that hospitals have been using for years to remove harmful microbials both on surfaces and in the air — and these techniques are proving to be effective in destroying COVID-19 as well.

Ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI): This involves the safe and responsible use of ultraviolet-C (UVC) light rays to kill the COVID-19 virus either airborne or on surfaces. Direct exposure to UVC radiation inactivates the virus, although schools must use UVC lamps with caution, as UVC exposure to human skin or eyes can cause injuries. Using an air purifier that contains built-in UVC lamps as well as a HEPA filter adds another layer of protection and is more effective than simply using a filter alone.

Bipolar ionization: With this technology, charged ions are released into the atmosphere, where they naturally attach to expelled breath droplets and dust particles that can transport viruses. The resulting particles are larger and more dense, so they either fall below breathing level or can be trapped more easily within an air filter. At the same time, the ions produce a chemical reaction on the cell membrane surface that inactivates the virus. The technology was first used in the U.S. in the 1970s to control pathogens in food manufacturing, Business Insider reports — and today it’s used in hospitals, airports, and hotels.

Photocatalytic oxidation (PCO): This process involves shining UVC light onto a metal sheet coated with titanium dioxide, releasing oxidizers that destroy viruses and other toxins by breaking them down into carbon dioxide and water vapor. Whereas bipolar ionization produces ozone — a gas regulated by the EPA and state air quality boards like the California Air Resources Board (CARB), which can trigger a variety of health problems (particularly for children and people of all ages who have lung diseases such as asthma) — PCO produces only water vapor as a byproduct.

Products that use one or more of these technologies to purify the air and/or disinfect surfaces could be more suitable for use in a learning environment. To learn more about these technologies, visit School Specialty’s website.

Mike Crumlin “MAC” leads the business development activity for School Specialty.  A product of Prince George’s County Public schools, MAC is a graduate of West Point and the Harvard Business School.  After service as an Army officer and special operations pilot, he pursued a 25-year career in high tech, most of it in Silicon Valley. MAC first sought to serve school-aged children when he stood for and won a House seat to the Maryland General Assembly.  Today, in his role with School Specialty, MAC seeks to serve school districts and school-aged children, and pay homage to his parents, who were both 30-year veterans of the D.C. Public School System.