School ventilation concerns

Posted at 4:27 PM, Aug 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-12 10:52:37-04

Health experts are pleading with school districts to check ventilation systems before reopening. Poor air circulation in aging schools could put teachers and students at risk for COVID-19.

Dr. Joseph Allen oversees the Health Buildings Program at Harvard University. He started sounding the alarm months ago about poor ventilation systems plaguing schools nationwide.

"We've chronically under-invested in our school buildings," says Dr. Allen.

Nationally, 90 percent of schools are under-ventilated, but now, poor air circulation could help spread the coronavirus. Dr. Allen is pleading with schools to address ventilation before reopening.

"What is happening in classrooms depends on the action we take or don't take," said Dr. Allen.

To help guide schools, Harvard created a Risk Reductions Strategy Report. For schools that cannot afford to upgrade their ventilation systems, or don't have time, portable air cleaners can help. Dr. Allen says a portable air cleaner with a HEPA filter is key. In a classroom where ventilation is poor, changing the air out five times per hour means the air in the room can be cleaned every 12 minutes. Even opening windows helps.

Last week, Harvard even released an air cleaner calculator. It allows school officials to input the size of the classroom, even the ceiling height. Then it recommends the kind of air cleaner that would be safest.

"If you have lower ventilation, you should increase the amount of filtration," said Dr. Allen. "If you have good ventilation, you don't need as much filtration."

Deanna Adkinson's engineering firm has been helping school districts assess the quality of their airflow systems. What they've found is alarming, some schools have not had air filters upgraded in decades.

"Just from walking around some of the older schools they aren't even meeting code right now as far as ventilation goes," said Adkinson.

A viral photo from Georgia showed students crammed into a hallway, and an outbreak has now been reported there in the first week of school.

"If you look at the cases of spread in school right now, they all share common traits," said Dr. Allen. "It's no mask-wearing and low to no ventilation."

Keeping the air clear in the nation's schools is now more important than ever. Harvard put together a list of 20 questions parents should answer before sending their kids back to school. Among the top three:

  • Are the number of cases in the area low enough for schools to reopen?
  • When and how will masks be required and how will the school support mask use?
  • Will hand washing stations or hand sanitizer be available throughout the school and when will children be required to wash their hands?