Indoor Air Quality in Schools in the Time of COVID-19

From College to Kindergarten and Everything In Between

Indoor Air Quality in Schools in the Time of COVID-19 1

COVID-19. It’s taken the country by storm. Communities across the US are going to great lengths to ensure that their hospitals, municipal buildings, and essential businesses are clean and as germ-free as possible. But what about schools? Some are private institutions, others are public, and whether they are primary or secondary schools, or colleges and universities, all are responsible for the wellness of their students, faculty, and visitors while on school property.

The summer of 2020 has been a scramble for schools all over the US as they consider the threat of Coronavirus in the classroom and prepare their buildings for the Fall semester. Until recently, the sole focus had been on adding social distancing markers, rearranging desks and other furniture, and disinfecting. But various new studies assert that airborne transmission is also a risk. (1)

As of the time of this writing, the World Health Organization (WHO) maintains that COVID-19 spreads chiefly by way of close, direct contact with droplets from a sick person’s cough or sneeze. But nearly 250 scientists have signed a letter arguing that the agency may be wrong. (2) The letter, published in Clinical Infectious Diseases, states:

“Studies by the signatories and other scientists have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that viruses are released during exhalation, talking, and coughing in microdroplets small enough to remain aloft in air and pose a risk of exposure at distances beyond 1 to 2 meters (yards) from an infected individual.”

As districts and private institutions grapple with whether to open or hold classes virtually, teachers, administrators, and families worry about what back-to-school days will look like if they are physically in the classroom. Social distancing, wearing a facemask, and thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting are critical right now. But is it enough?

Even before Covid-19 found its way to America, we knew that poor indoor air quality in schools can hamper student health. (3) In addition to communicable infections, pollutants such as molds, dust, and fumes can negatively impact a student’s wellness, ability to concentrate, and classroom performance.

Understanding the reasons why schools are so vulnerable (4) is the first step in improving the quality of the air inside them.

1. Schools, unlike personal residences, commercial buildings, or office structures, tend to have more people crowded in smaller spaces.

2. Children, even those who are young adults, are inclined to pack together tightly, with little to no thought given to personal space. Think: cafeterias at lunchtime and indoor spectator events viewed from bleachers. Think: crowded hallways and stairwells in between classes.

3. Minors of all ages haven’t yet matured enough to consider the consequences of touching surfaces or their faces and not washing their hands. They are more likely to cough and breathe in direct proximity to others. Many of them share food, drinks, and personal items.

In the early stages of our current pandemic, little was known about the risks of the infection beyond that the virus traveled on moisture droplets and could be contracted by touch. But now we know that there is a risk of transmission via airborne particulate matter which underscores the importance of wearing masks and keeping a safe distance from others. But if healthy indoor air quality is desired, and school administrators truly wish to protect their populace, more than facial protection, cleaning, and social distancing will be necessary.

Technical standards for indoor building systems are written by ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) but the organization also seeks to advance system designs to improve IAQ. Recently, the group asserted that the risk of Covid19 contamination is a genuine health risk, prompting them to recommend that existing HVAC systems be modified to increase airflow in an effort to halt transmission. (5)

But not all HVAC systems that exist in schools today are suitable for modification. And some schools want more protection – that’s where air purifiers/air cleaners can help. (6)

The EPA recommends a multi-layered approach to improving IAQ and includes: (7)

Filtration
Air-cleaning
Source control
Maintaining appropriate ventilation rates

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) goes further and specifies “air purifiers as having the potential to further reduce exposure to virus-laden aerosols and serve as a useful supplement to other protective procedures.” (8)

In addition to or in lieu of retrofitting or modifying HVAC systems to circulate air more forcefully and at a higher exchange rate, schools can – wherever space and funding will allow – add portable HEPA filtration systems to their virus-combating arsenal.

Our portable HEPA filter air cleaning systems come in three different models, the filtration and recirculation capabilities ranging in room sizes as small as your typical classroom to multi-use areas up to 1200 sq. ft.

To find out more about our classroom air purifying systems – such as our 987-RUCA model – contact Air Systems, Inc. to speak to one of our clean air specialists.