The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a fact that those of us working in school facilities and building maintenance have long known, that many of our nation’s schools are in need of significant upgrades to improve indoor air quality. Improving indoor air quality is critical to protecting students and teachers from new variants of COVID, not to mention fighting off the annual flu and other common illnesses. Additionally, improved indoor air quality can positively impact alertness, attendance, and student performance.
It is actually not surprising that indoor air quality in schools is a problem. Funding education has been and will continue to be a challenge for society. Given funding shortages in education, we have seen a growing backlog of deferred maintenance projects at the K-12 level, with some estimates showing a backlog of more than $500 billion. And as schools prioritize projects when funding does become available, taking steps to improve indoor air quality often falls to the bottom of the list, as more visible repairs such as painting, plumbing, and lighting take precedence.
Fortunately, a window of financial opportunity has now opened to address indoor air quality in schools across the country. As part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan enacted in March to help the country recover from the pandemic, Congress included $130-billion for K-12 schools. While some of that funding is designated for specific purposes, such as addressing learning loss, much of it will likely be available for schools to use for other needs, including building upgrades. And additional funding for schools is likely to be included in the reconciliation bill soon to be debated in Congress, which could pass later this fall.
Hopefully, many school districts will use these funds to invest in indoor air quality projects, perhaps their first in decades. When they do, it is important that they invest wisely.
In recent months, we have seen a surge in advertisements for products and technologies that promise a quick fix for preventing the spread of COVID-19 and other pathogens. Many of these are based on employing reactive ions or reactive oxygen technology to clean the air. While some of these products may offer limited benefit, there is little independent evidence of their effectiveness. And in some cases, health experts and independent testing labs have recommended against their use, noting that they can generate secondary pollutants or byproducts, possibly posing a new threat to safety.
The reality is that no two school facilities or classroom settings are exactly alike. Each requires an independent assessment to determine the quality of the indoor air, the cause of any problem and the recommended solution for improving air quality.
The best approach involves a layered solution to air disinfection, which can include a combination of increasing the flow of outside air, controlling temperature and humidity, enhancing filtration to achieve MERV 13 levels, and installing proven room-based air cleaning solutions, such as HEPA filtration units and upper-room ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI or GUV). This multi-pronged strategy to reduce airborne transmission of pathogens is recommended by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and ASHRAE (formerly the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers).
With schools fully reopening for in-person learning this fall, students, parents and teachers are rightly concerned about the indoor air quality in America’s classrooms. As federal dollars designated for education-related pandemic response begin to flow, now is the time for our K-12 schools to make the investments needed to improve indoor air quality. We can’t afford to wait for the next pandemic. We have the technology and the financial resources to do this right and to do it now.
Brian Lee is Vice President of Engineering and Asset Solutions at Aramark.
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