6 indoor air quality missteps school districts are making

Air quality experts offer perspective on assumptions being made by district leaders that are incorrect and are impacting safe school reopenings.

Indoor air quality, already a complex issue and a big challenge for school districts, has become both more important and more complex in the age of COVID. Here’s what mistakes district leaders are tending to make as they reopen schools.

1. Relying too heavily on face masks, social distancing and hand washing

While all of these measures are considered crucial to reducing the risk of virus transfer, they indicate that district leaders collected their information in May and June—but didn’t take into account what hit the news in July, says Kristofer Howard, the group president for Filtration Group Indoor Air Quality, a provider of mechanical and filtration systems to improve indoor hygiene.

That’s when a group of 239 scientists from around the world united in an open letter to the Whole Health Organization, calling for acknowledgment that COVID-19 transmission can be airborne.

With aerosolization, “really small particles can hang out in the air for hours at a time,” says Howard. “To combat that we need a good air quality strategy. We’re living in a very fluid situation about what COVID is and how it manifests itself. Protocols need to change to keep up with that.”

2. Failing to recognize how important air quality is to educators and families

It’s a scary concept—aerosols hovering in the air after a person has left the area or transmitting to another room through the HVAC system. And once a teacher or parent reads up on it, they won’t likely forget.

“Few spaces have more people moving around in the same area than schools,” says Michael Hines, the North America Director of Education Initiatives at Trane, which brings efficient and sustainable climate solutions to buildings, homes and transportation. “This input about how COVID-19 may spread propels air quality onto the list of things schools need to evaluate and improve to restore confidence among teachers, families and students about going back to school.

3. Approaching air quality as a single to-do

“For some people, it’s become a check-the-box exercise,” says Howard. “They replaced the filters in their HVAC system and said ‘now we have clean air.’ The reality is you need to do something more than just that.”

“For many schools, the first step is often to start the conversation and gather data and insights,” says Hines. “For example, Trane uses an indoor air quality assessment to help building managers and school administrators evaluate air quality in their schools and navigate how to improve it. With actionable data and insights about the building’s overall air quality, building operators and school administrators can then make informed decisions and plans about immediate actions and future improvements in line with the school’s budget and short- and long-term goals.”

Just remember, Hines says, that there is no single solution for all environments. “Every school is different; each building may have different needs—and costs—when it comes to indoor air quality.”

4. Feeling too confident about open classroom windows

As a June report from Harvard Healthy Schools covering Risk Reduction Strategies for Reopening Schools explains, the percentage of outdoor air that can be brought into a building matters—and a minimum of 50% outdoor air is needed now.

That recommendation, Howard says, would probably shock most district leaders. And it’s a level that could probably only be reached on a breezy day. “Over the last few years, a federal standard that said schools should have a minimum of 20% outdoor air,” he adds.

Leaving windows open is “not a very practical defense,” he explains. “It could be hot, cold, humid—and you don’t know how much air you’re actually getting in to the room.”

Many HVAC systems have controls that can adjust the amount of outdoor air and humidity levels within the building.

5. Thinking only about HVAC systems

“As people talk about indoor air, they’ve just been over-reliant on the HVAC system as the way to solve this problem,” says Howard. “The reality is more HVAC systems have some design problems—dead spaces in different parts of the building, not as much air flow. The conversation has been way too focused on HVAC and not on how you get really high-quality filtration at a local level.”

The Harvard Healthy Buildings report recommends portable air cleaners with HEPA filters for reducing exposures to airborne droplets and aerosols emitted from infectious individuals. Placement of the air cleaners depends on the room’s airflow patterns and the distribution of people in the room.

When looking at making a purchase, be cautious of claims that nearly all viruses are killed by the unit, or that coronaviruses in particular are killed by it. Howard suggests looking for third-party testing data that back up any claims.

6. Assuming air quality improvements are financially out of reach

Yes, HVAC system upgrades are typically costly and time-consuming. Air filtration systems are more portable solution but are generally required for each room of a school. And few school districts are as lucky as those in Vermont were, with access to a grant program from Efficiency Vermont that also connected schools with contractors.

In terms of air filtration systems, Howard suggests looking at the hotspots in the building, including where it’s most likely that social distancing is going to break down. Such areas can be prioritized for taking a local air purification approach. “A couple of well-placed local air purifiers is a way to lean into this without going all the way,” he says, adding that isolation rooms for ill students are a key place to consider.

CARES Act funds, if not already spent, are a natural funding source. Hines also advises looking into traditional funding sources, such as bonds and leases, as well as innovative financing structures.

“Schools are perpetually faced with limited funds and competing initiatives,” he says. “As with most school investments, the answer often comes down to priorities. Many of the schools investing in indoor air quality now were already thinking about HVAC needs prior to the pandemic.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of DA. 

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