Managing Indoor Air Quality in Schools During the Pandemic
Managing indoor air in schools has a major impact on the spread of COVID-19. Funding can help schools upgrade their systems.
The pandemic has changed the way that we look at the air that we breathe. During the pandemic there was a study completed about the indoor air quality within the school system. The importance of this study was shown as parents and education professionals struggled to balance the importance of in-classroom learning with the risks presented by COVID-19.
There have been many reports about the significance of classroom learning, not only for the educational purpose but also for peer interaction, the safety of children and learning life skills including problem-solving in the real world. However, when there are concerns about the air quality when sending our children to school, there becomes an imbalance for the physical safety versus the emotional and mental health of the children.
One study that was completed in the second year of the pandemic has shown how schools can manage indoor air quality. Following are some key findings.
Increase Outdoor Air Ventilation Through the HVAC System
Many schools upgraded the filters in the HVAC system in accordance to CDC guidelines. They also increased use of CO2 monitoring, removed on demand controls of the HVAC system and used for ventilation fans in conjunction with upgraded HVAC use.
There were challenges. Many of the school HVAC systems were not designed for the greater impact of increased air flow. Many of these HVAC systems were also not designed for the upgraded filters. Other factors were the increase of energy costs, unbalanced humidity in the school, breakdown of the HVAC system from overuse and lack of contractors in some areas to repair, upgrade or replace the HVAC system.
Increased Outdoor Air Ventilation Through Opening Windows
This seems like a simple solution to increase the outdoor air ventilation. Around 80% of schools in all districts stated that they were opening windows to increase the air ventilation. Larger schools were less likely to open windows then smaller or rural schools. There were restrictions with opening windows such as outdoor temperature or environmental actions such as rain. Opening a window can cause an impact on thermal comfort. There are also concerns with the safety of open windows. Many schools reported that there is a lack of windows that can be opened for safety reasons. School educators also raised questions about the effectiveness of opening the window and fear that the airborne virus would still travel around the school due to the lack of a proper filtration or air purification systems.
Adding Air Cleaning Machines and Additional Fans
This strategy was not as common as other strategies due to general lack of knowledge about the products, such as VIRUSKILLER™, available for air purification. Those who used the air scrubbers reported that there was a comfort level with having them in the classroom. There was some concern in addition to the cost, and confusion as to when to use them and where the best place for the air scrubbers and fans were to be located. Supply and demand were a concern when looking for air scrubbers and fans for the classroom. Working with professional indoor air quality specialists would relive these concerns.
Recommendations Going Forward
The American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER) has funding to support the implementation of IAQ measures. There is additional operating funding from school boards, as well as state and federal assistance. This funding can be used for accessing additional HVAC and engineering controls. With this funding, the next steps should include:
- Completing a cost benefit analysis that breaks down the capital and operational costs against the health and learning benefits of the students. This study should demonstrate to the decision makers the benefit of upgrading the equipment such as HVAC systems, improved filters and air scrubbers.
- Completing a study of new technology that is less familiar but recommended such as upper room GUV and the use of negative air machines.
- Complete a study of climate-specific best practices. This should include consideration of heat, humidity and air pollutions including wildfire smoke.
- Complete a study on the cost of upgrades and maintenance of current systems compared to the IAQ benefits. This should include trade off of efficiencies, cost controls, control measures and all budgetary concerns.
What can be Completed in the Meantime
There are some basic measures that can be utilized while these studies are being completed.
- Learn about funding from ARP ESSER and other state and federal grants and funding to improve indoor air quality.
- Complete a full assessment of the current HVAC system. The study has indicated that many schools who competed the HVAC system assessment found many issues that would not have otherwise been located. An HVAC system assessment should include:
- What capacity of fresh air intake is being brought into the school?
- Are dampers open and on fresh air mode, not recirculation mode?
- Cost of upgrade to the HVAC system to ensure the functionality
- Determine if the filter system is adequate or needs an upgrade
The pandemic has made it clear to Americans the importance of indoor air quality. Preventing the spread of this virus and any future viruses is crucial in the school system. Ensure that engineering controls such as ventilation and filtration systems are effective strategies in dealing with pandemics or epidemics by doing the studies and taking the next steps. The use of any method has concerns and multiple layers may be required to ensure the safety of all students, but these steps save lives. There is funding available to assist in completing recommendations including cleaning and maintaining current HVAC systems, use of new technologies such as Ultraviolet Germicidal Irradiation and upgrading filtration systems.