K-12 schools across the country are beginning the next year of school in the midst of the COVID-19 increase. Schools have abandoned safety precautions like physical distancing and mask requirements as the BA.5 Omicron subvariant causes thousands of reinfections.
In response, some parents and experts are trying to improve ventilation in schools, since better air quality in buildings can reduce COVID-19’s spread and even improve other health outcomes. But, despite readily available resources—including millions of dollars in funding from the federal government—many schools have not invested in upgrading their air quality.
“We know that ventilation is important to reduce the transmission of SARS-CoV-2,” says Dr. Catherine Rasberry, a scientist in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Division of Adolescent and School Health. Ventilation is highlighted throughout the CDC’s guidance for safe in-person learning during the pandemic. Improving it could cut down on school outbreaks and the interruptions they pose to families, as well as mitigate the risks of MIS-C and Long COVID in children—two long-term conditions that can result from a COVID-19 infection.
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Good indoor air quality can also be linked to many other health indicators that are not related to COVID-19. “Decades of scientific research show when you improve indoor air quality, you improve student health, student thinking, and student performance,” says Joseph Allen, an air quality expert at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health. He says that improvements can be seen in everything from allergy and asthma symptoms reduction to higher scores on comprehension tests.
Good air quality is what it means
Tony Colaneri, a parent in the Chicago suburb of Evanston who has campaigned for better ventilation in his children’s schools, compares cutting down on COVID-19 spread to reducing cigarette smoke. “Imagine that someone was smoking a cigarette on the other side of the room,” he says. You might then open the windows and run fans to cool the room. A portable filter can be placed next to the smoker. This will remove the coronavirus from the air.
Allen and other experts suggest that classroom ventilation meet the threshold of six air cycles per hour. This means new, clean air circulates through the room approximately every ten minutes. The CDC has not provided any guidance, but several states recommend a range of two to six air changes each hour.
“Really, you want to aim for 12 air changes per hour,” says Devabhaktuni Srikrishna, a San Francisco school parent and infectious disease researcher who runs the website Patient Knowhow, which compiles recommendations on high-quality masks, ventilation, and other COVID-related topics. “It’s the number used in hospitals for airborne infection isolation rooms for the last 20 or 30 years.”
Schools can improve air flow rates by using low-cost solutions like adding portable filters to windows or opening doors. They can also upgrade or replace HVAC systems — a higher-cost strategy, but one that may be more valuable in the long-term, Allen says. Allen, along with other members of The Allen Group, outlined these and other actions in their July report. LancetA group of interdisciplinarity experts working in collaboration to develop pandemic-resolution solutions.
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You can build your own portable air purifiers as a student. The CorsiRosenthal Box, a popular design, is affordable at less than $100. Krystall pollitt, Yale University’s epidemiologist and expert in environmental health, believes these DIY boxes perform as well as more expensive cleaners. The design was confirmed by engineers at 3M (the company that makes the filter used in these boxes).
Students and teachers may need to first convince school officials that poor air quality is an issue. Last spring, three high school seniors at Franklin Learning Center, a public school in Philadelphia, studied their school’s air quality for a senior project. Using air monitors, they found “significantly high levels of carbon dioxide and humidity in classrooms,” says Cianni Craig, one of the students. These levels suggest that the air quality and ventilation are poor, which increases the risk of COVID-19 transmission and other possible health issues that “interfere with a student’s education,” she says.
Craig shared her findings with classmates at school board meetings. However, school officials dismissed the data and questioned whether Craig’s DIY strategies were efficient. Jessica Way is a Franklin Learning Center teacher who assisted students in their project. But the students didn’t give up: they sent their work to the Philadelphia teachers union, local politicians, and journalists. Eventually, the district’s environmental office replicated the student’s research, confirming that their school’s ventilation needs some serious upgrades.
How schools fight for cleaner air
Schools can receive significant federal funding through the American Rescue Plan to improve their air quality. But many schools haven’t done resource-intensive upgrades, according to a June report from the CDC.
The majority of public schools surveyed reported that they used cheaper methods like moving to the outside and opening windows. Just 39% of schools reported that they had replaced or upgraded their school’s HVAC system. 28% used portable filters. Rasberry, a leading author of the study, said that the CDC was working to make federal funds available for expensive upgrades more widely.
Experts say school leaders should learn more about air quality to better understand their importance. Even if an administrator recognizes the value of better ventilation, they likely need to hire an HVAC expert to examine existing building systems, then vet that expert’s recommendations and evaluate potential upgrades—all of which may be “far beyond their area of expertise,” Pollitt says. Administrators might choose to use expensive filters when they are cheaper and more efficient than DIY options.
School may face administrative challenges when trying to access funding, or complying with regulations. In Philadelphia, for instance, federal funds for better ventilation are controlled by a “highly conservative state legislature,” says David Backer, an expert on school finance at West Chester University. “Around a billion dollars is sitting in a pot; they just don’t want to spend it.”
Some administrators might even hesitate to use portable air filters purchased or built by local parents because they haven’t been officially approved by a district’s finance office first. When portable filters do exist, it is important that teachers are trained to correctly use them. A classroom air filter that is placed in the corner might not be effective if it’s turned to a low setting.
Parents can help
Parents interested in improving their school’s ventilation can learn more from publicly available resources, such as this flow diagram from Pollitt and colleagues at Yale and Srikrishna’s instructions for DIY air filters. A membership is also available. growing communityOf parents, teachersPlease see the following: ventilation experts on Twitter. Experts are usually willing to share knowledge and answer queries.
Sometimes it takes months for schools to implement campaigns that improve their air quality. Schools sometimes take action when administrators fail to act. In Philadelphia, the high school students’ project and other school air monitoring efforts have sparked a series of events to build these filters and a social media push to publicize the project, led by the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter.
“Don’t let anyone deter you from voicing your findings,” says Craig, who would like her project to serve as inspiration for parents, teachers, and other students to advocate for better air quality in schools. “Keep using your voice to create a safe environment for students to learn.”
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