Safer Air: To Cut Virus Risk In Fall, Schools Scramble To Improve Ventilation

As schools plan for possible reopening in the fall, many are considering overhauls to filters and air flow -- and at least making sure windows work, for a start.

8/2/2020 7:02:00 AM

About 90% of schools nationwide are under-ventilated, says one expert at Harvard. And decades of research show bad airflow harms student health and performance. Now, the pandemic is bringing new urgency to the issue. (WBUR)

As schools plan for possible reopening in the fall, many are considering overhauls to filters and air flow -- and at least making sure windows work, for a start.

Matthew Gillis , director of operations at Brookline Public Schools, checks a window while volunteer parent Kristin Jones records the window is working properly. at the Old Lincoln School in Brookline. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)Out on the flat, rock-carpeted roof of the West Somerville Neighborhood School, consultant Scott LeClair steps up to an air handler unit as big as a semi-trailer.

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He opens a metal panel and pulls out a filter shaped like a pizza box."This unit’s actually sending the air into the building," he explains."We’re looking to see what types of filters they have and what level they can filter to," so the filters can be upgraded if possible.

"We’re also looking at how much air we can bring from the outside," adds LeClair, whose engineering firm,Fitzemeyer and Tocci, often works on health care buildings and so is familiar with fighting airborne microbes. "And we’re going to see if we can get that number higher, so that we can bring in more outdoor air, and exchange the air in the building more frequently."

His visit, which also includes checks of the airflow in classrooms and bathrooms, is part of the intensive work under way to outfit the Somerville schools physically for pandemic times, from furniture that allows more distancing to possible outdoor classrooms.

"The goal," says Somerville, Mass., Mayor Joseph Curtatone,"is to establish an environment where we can safely educate the kids."That means masks, social distancing, and hand-washing — and safer air. There’sgrowing evidencethat the coronavirus can linger in the air, including several documented cases that linked poor ventilation to spread of the virus. The state is advising schools that while masks are the best defense against that, better ventilation can help too.

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone reviews seating arrangements in a classroom with supervisor of facilities Michael Bowler at West Somerville Neighborhood School. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)With a full gamut of risk-reducing strategies in place, including good ventilation and filters,"you can significantly drive down risk to a level where you wouldn’t expect a case, if you have good compliance with all the strategies," says Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. Success by health-care institutions in stemming spread of the virus are the proof, he says. He cites hospitals' success at stemming coronavirus infections as evidence.

Nationally, 90% of schools are under-ventilated, Allen says, anddecades of researchshow that bad air flow harms student health and performance. Now, the pandemic is bringing new urgency to the school air issue.One key, he says, is bringing in as much outdoor air as possible, so that viral particles don’t build up if someone is sick and shedding virus.

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"Think about it in terms of dilution of contaminant in the indoor space," Allen says."You either want to dilute it by bringing in more outdoor air, or clean that air to remove the particles. There’s two removal mechanisms: dilution or cleaning."

During an inspection at West Somerville Neighborhood School, engineer Scott LeClair pulls out an air filter from an central air conditioning unit that he finds are only 30 percent efficient. They will be upgraded with filters that closer to 95 percent efficient. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Remedies can be as simple as opening windows or using box fans — or holding class outdoors if possible. Indoors, he recommends portable air cleaners, andthat manufacturers could likely produce enough for the country's schools.In June, his Healthy Buildings program put out a

on how schools can reduce coronavirus risk, including ventilation guidelines.Thestatehasn’t set specific school air standards for this pandemic period, says Rich Raiche, Somerville’s director of infrastructure and asset management."And that’s definitely a stressor for the people making the decisions," he says."There is no uniform guidance on what an acceptable threshold is. So each district, each municipality, has to make their own determination on it."

As with many school decisions right now, he says, how good the ventilation has to be will ultimately be a judgement call after bringing in outside experts, elected officials and the public."So it’s hugely complicated, and everyone realizes that there’s a lot at stake on those decisions, and everyone feels that,"he says."None of us are sleeping anymore."

Somerville's school committee chair, Carrie Normand, cites the copious time required for each district to make such determinations."When you have every district doing this on their own," she says,"it is not a good use of resources across the state."

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Ventilation efforts vary not just town by town but school by school, some of them brand new with state-of-the art systems and some of them antiques whose climate depends largely on windows and radiators.A whiteboard in a classroom with the day’s assignments, dated for March 12, the last of school in Brookline before classes were suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

At the Old Lincoln School on Route 9 in Brookline, parent volunteer Kristin Jones helps district director of operations Matthew Gillis inventory the huge windows that reach the ceiling. Nearby, a whiteboard headed"March 12" gives the poignant impression that in the empty school, time froze when the pandemic hit.

Gillis and Jones pause for just a moment to contemplate that surreal stoppage, then return to muscling the windows up and down to check their function. The district's plans for reopening are still in play, but the clear goal, Gillis says, is,"We all want to have a safe return, even though we can't eliminate all risk."

And nobody, he says, wants to reopen and then soon need to close back down again.Joe Allen from Harvard recently told the Brookline school reopening task force that improving school air does involve costs."But there’s a much bigger expense from keeping our kids out of school," he said."You cannot separate it from this equation. These costs are

realdoable."Many schools may not be able to reach ideal levels of ventilation, Allen says, but that shouldn’t stop them from doing what they can to make their air safer — like adding portable air purifiers — now, before students and staff may come back.

Matthew Gillis, director of operations for the Brookline school district, and volunteer parent Kristin Jones check the windows are working properly at the Old Lincoln School in Brookline. (Jesse Costa/WBUR) Read more: NPR »

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jshoreboston WBUR Shut it down! WBUR The legacy of boomers who didn’t wanna pay no taxes, leaving us in a gigantic shit storm and then bailing on us and retiring. fedup WBUR Anybody heard of schools 'fogging' the rooms at night? I don't know how that can help if masks aren't required during the day.

WBUR School buildings are rayciss WBUR Another reason we should close public schools permanently. WBUR The same hardvard making pretend foods for our food supply? Losing cred. WBUR Open the windows and doors WBUR And this Harvard 'expert ' went to every school and counted ? WBUR maryfrances3271 aren’t you glad you’re retired?

WBUR They do realize that school won't happen at this rate? Most schools may never open again. goodriddance to the shitty ones. WBUR My former school was 50 years old. Many things were upgraded since it was built. WBUR Just a reminder that everything that affects students in school, also affects teachers and staff, for years beyond the students span of experience within the same building. Sometimes decades.

WBUR All ya need to do is walk into any classroom and take wif to know this. WBUR How about office buildings? WBUR An 'expert' quoted by NPR is like the old days or publish or perish. Good for grant money. WBUR Now do this for college campuses! WBUR Perfect conditions to have all K-College age Get infected and take the virus home to adults and rest of family. BetsyDeVosED doesn’t live in reality, just another Radical-Right Fascist

WBUR Ventilation is racist WBUR How many years have we heard of teachers having to buy school supplies for their classrooms and students - out of their own pocket - because of budget cuts. Now Republicans are expecting teachers to do the same with a deadly virus and PPE? Opening schools is a nightmare to come

WBUR And killls teachers. WBUR You have no idea. WBUR When I started school the only 'airflow' was obtained by opening a window. WBUR until we have a vaccine, kids should stay home. WBUR GregAbbott_TX Our room filters are only changed twice a year. Our janitorial staff hasn’t received any special training. TeachersVote

WBUR Too many kick backs to teachers unions no money left for ventilation WBUR “decades of research show bad airflow harms student health and performance” Don’t forget to wear your mask 😷 WBUR Lol i’ve talked about this for years. Most contained classrooms don’t even have windows that open leading to VOC’s lingering for years

WBUR If folks want to understand what “defund” means just look at public education. We have been doing for decades. WBUR It's been true since the 1960s. I know, I was there. WBUR Is that what happened to teachers all these years. They have been under-ventilated? Or just hyperventilating? WBUR Harvard isn't a real university

As temperatures rise with coronavirus cases, experts eye impact of air conditioningGrowing body of research suggests that indoor spaces with poor ventilation or lack of new air can raise the risk of the virus' spread, according to infectious disease aerobiologist. Sorry but surely this isn’t new breakthrough stuff , bloody obvious this is at least a month old now aunty Someone spent 4 years at a credited university to research this study. Then someone did the same to write it. Well done.

As temperatures rise with coronavirus cases, experts eye impact of air conditioningWhile individuals can take steps to protect themselves, a growing body of research suggests that indoor spaces with poor ventilation or lack of new air can raise the risk of the virus' spread, according to infectious disease aerobiologist Dr. Donald Milton of the University of Maryland. Milton' Yes, let's turn off those evil air conditioners because no one has ever died from Hyperthermia! My guard dog is not giving up her air condish

Can the coronavirus spread through the air?Can the coronavirus spread through the air? Yes, it's possible. The World Health Organization recently acknowledged the possibility that COVID-19 might be spread in the air under... All bullshit. Time for the human hamster balls

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CDC warns Congress of 'significant public health consequences' if schools don't reopen in the fallCorrection... massive sickness when they open This is an impossible decision What

The U.S. election is getting ugly - and investors are getting nervousInvestors are increasingly preparing for the risk of a contested U.S. presidential election come the fall, worried that an ugly political situation will create volatility across markets. Investors should get nervous. Trump fiddles while the country burns. What do you mean getting? It's only getting ugly in the sense that trump has been backed into a corner and knows he's gonna lose, so he's just throwing spaghetti at the Maga wall to see what sticks. trump is singlehandedly making it ugly, let's not pretend any differently.