Why a school building’s health is critical to reopening

Proper filtration, ventilation and cleaning are just the start; a greener future means providing safe environments for all
By: | August 28, 2020
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Reopening K-12 schools for face-to-face instruction requires more than social distancing of students, the wearing of facemasks and the testing of students for COVID-19.

At a virtual town hall hosted by the National Institute of Building Science (NIBS), experts said the health of school buildings is just as imperative in helping ensure staff and students remain safe during the academic year.

High priority on the panel’s checklist: proper ventilation and filtration systems, diligent building maintenance, proper disinfection methods and implementation and building control strategies. They said green buildings have been particularly effective in keeping students and staff healthy.

“This is not rocket science, we’ve long known how to operate our building effectively,” said Joseph Allen, assistant professor at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Good leaders have their eye on what’s coming next.”

Yet, two major concerns remain ever-present regarding the current state of school buildings. The first is that no building filled with students can completely guarantee a safe environment when cases are high during a pandemic.

“You cannot open when community spread is raging,” Allen said. “It cannot be business or schools as usual. You have to put systems in place.”

Lakisha Woods, president and chief executive of NIBS, added: “Following the science must be the guideline for institutions and communities. Flattening the curve is still the priority.”

The second is that all buildings were not created equal.

The great building divide

Communities that have been blessed with green buildings have seen healthier outcomes, the panel noted, including “reduced number of school days, missed work days and tens of thousands of fewer asthma attacks.”

Higher-income districts typically enjoy better resources and newer or improved buildings and systems. But those in more vulnerable communities often deal with the flip side: a lack of resources or funding for maintenance and older buildings.

That can lead to a disparity from one building to the next … and across different socio-economic groups.

Stephanie Carlisle, research analyst with the Carbon Leadership Forum, said it is vital for district, state and local leaders to look beyond space planning and updated filtration and ventilation systems in schools and consider social injustice and sustainability when making decisions about the future.

“Public health is a powerful lens through which we can work for change,” she said. “When we focus on vulnerable communities, we will raise up everyone.”

Maintaining a healthy building

Even those schools and districts who’ve gotten a slow start in planning or have limited resources for major improvements can fall back on the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines to help keep their buildings safe.

Many of those measures target individual faculty members and students – such as protocols for hygiene and respiratory etiquette and addressing behaviors that can help prevent and stop spread of coronavirus. Those should work hand in hand with overall building strategies, the panel experts said.

In their guidance, the CDC recommends these tips to schools:

  • “Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and shared objects and stick to hard-fast routines and schedules
  • Consider ventilation system upgrades or improvements to increase the delivery of clean air and dilute potential contaminants.
  • Use fans to increase the effectiveness of open windows
  • Increase total airflow supply to occupied spaces, when possible
  • Disable demand-controlled ventilation (DCV) controls that reduce air supply based on occupancy or temperature during occupied hours
  • Increase total airflow supply to occupied spaces, when possible
  • Disable demand-controlled ventilation (DCV) controls that reduce air supply based on occupancy or temperature during occupied hours
  • Consider using ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) to help inactivate SARS-CoV-2, especially if options ventilation is limited”

Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for District Administration. He can be reached at cburt@lrp.com

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