6 immediate ESSER actions schools can take to improve air quality

Relief funds can be used to set up outdoor classrooms and pay for increased heating and cooling costs
By: | July 23, 2021
(AdobeStock)(AdobeStock)

Administrators seeking to improve ventilation can use American Rescue Plan funds to provide additional layers of air quality protection in preventing the spread of COVID in classrooms.

The Department of Education on Friday released a guide to help district leaders take immediate action to inspect, test, repair, replace and upgrade their facilities. This can include filtering, purification, air cleaning fans, and window and door repair.

Funds can also be used to set up outdoor classrooms, pay for increased heating and cooling costs and purchase portable air filtration units and carbon dioxide monitors.

“Protecting our schools and communities from the spread of COVID-19 is the first step in bringing more students back to in-person learning and reemerging from this crisis even stronger than we were before,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement. “With the American Rescue Plan, schools and districts now have access to unprecedented resources that will enable them to ensure proper ventilation and maintain healthy learning and working environments.”

The department encourages school leaders to communicate clearly to their communities, parents, students, and faculty that actions are being taken to improve ventilation. This information should be disseminated in simple language and widely accessible on school websites.

Some administrators have offered school building ventilation walk-throughs with community leaders to assess needs and share ventilation plans. Other school leaders have created video tours of the ventilation systems to explain air quality strategies.

Here are several more strategies for improving ventilation, based on current recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency:

  1. Bring in as much outdoor air as possible. Open windows wherever it is safe to do so, including in classrooms and on school buses and other transportation. Where safe, opening doors can also improve airflow. Fans increase the impact of open windows and doors.
  2. Hold classes, activities, and meals outdoors when safe and feasible.
  3. Use HVAC settings to maximize ventilation. Set systems to bring in as much outdoor air as possible, including for 2 hours before and after occupancy, and reduce or eliminate air recirculation.
  4. Ensuring exhaust fans in restrooms and kitchens are working properly and using them during occupancy and for 2 hours afterward to remove particles from the air. Keep all fans and filters clean to maximize airflow.
  5. Filtering and cleaning the air. Upgrade HVAC filters to minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV)-13, or the highest MERV rating a building’s ventilation system can accommodate. Consider using portable air cleaners that use filtration technology, such as high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters.
  6. Consider using portable carbon dioxide monitors. These devices can verify how well air is circulating in classrooms and other spaces. School maintenance professionals may also use airflow capture hoods, anemometers, and qualitative tracer techniques to assess airflow.

Leaders in Grand Rapids Public Schools in Michigan plan to spend $12 million on extensive upgrades of the HVAC systems in eight of their older buildings that failed air movement tests, Chief Financial Officer Larry Oberst says.

“ESSER dollars, unlike many federal programs, are allowed to be used on capital projects,” Oberst says. “We made do last year by acquiring portable ionization units.”