Decades of underinvestment has left tens of thousands of schools across the country with inadequate ventilation systems, a problem that is now front and center in the debate to reopen schools during the pandemic.
Nationally, 90 percent of schools fail to meet minimum ventilation standards. It’s an issue Dr. Joseph Allen has been sounding the alarm about since COVID-19 first shut down schools earlier this year.
“We’ve chronically underinvested in our schools’ buildings,” said Dr. Allen who serves as the director of the Healthy Buildings program at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health.
Dr. Allen and his colleagues have spent months analyzing school buildings, and back in June, they released a detailed 60-page report that school districts could follow in order to safely bring kids back into the classroom.
In order to keep COVID-19 from spreading in schools, two things have to happen: everyone in the buildings must be wearing masks and school districts need to ensure buildings have proper ventilation, the report found.
“If air is being recirculated and not filtered, all of that air that’s coming from one space and going to another could be potentially contaminated and spread the virus,” Dr. Allen said.
But replacing decades-old ventilation systems that may not work properly is expensive and time-consuming. Because of that, Dr. Allen is recommending school districts also consider portable air cleaners for classrooms.
Through his research, Dr. Allen found that if you can change the air in a classroom five times per hour, it cleans the air in that space every 12 minutes. However, the air cleaners must be equipped with a HEPPA filter in order to be effective.
Even something as simple as opening windows could reduce the transmission of the virus.
“If you look at the cases of spread in school right now, they all share common traits; it’s no mask-wearing and low to no ventilation. When we do that, we can guarantee there will be more cases,” he explained.
Last week, the Healthy Buildings program also released a detailed portable air cleaner calculator. The tool allows school administrators to input the size of the classroom, even ceiling height, and then determine the kind of air cleaner that would most effectively keep COVID-19 from spreading.
“It is critically important that we get kids back into in-person learning and we haven’t treated it as this national priority that it needs to be,” Dr. Allen added.