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Public health experts and air quality specialists say effective ventilation systems are essential to improve indoor air quality and help reduce COVID-19 transmission

Schools are getting creative as they strive to improve indoor air quality

Public health experts and air quality specialists say effective ventilation systems are essential to improve indoor air quality and help reduce COVID-19 transmission

After shouldering responsibilities for keeping students and staff safe and healthy in a global pandemic – you may have felt the weight of the world on your shoulders for the past several months or still feeling this with expectations for next year.

The changes and demands of the past year are a lot for school administrators – and their heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems – to handle. As we are hearing from public health experts and air quality specialists, effective ventilation systems are essential to help reduce the transmission of the COVID-19 virus or any other airborne illness in public facilities, from office buildings and restaurants to schools.

In his book Healthy Buildings, author Joseph G. Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program and associate professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, concludes that up to 90 percent of schools in the U.S. are not meeting the minimum ventilation standards set by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).

But modern and effective ventilation systems are not the reality for many of our schools. About 41 percent of school districts need new or updated HVAC systems in at least half of their schools, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office estimate.

Installing a new HVAC system is a significant capital expense, usually requiring additional funding through local governments. Local budgets are already stretched to the limit from economic challenges brought about by COVID-19. But now, with American Rescue Plan funds becoming available for building improvements including better ventilation, relatively affordable solutions are available which quantitatively improve indoor air quality.

A simpler solution: ceiling retrofits

Now there may be a simpler way to limit the airborne spread of infectious viruses inside buildings from offices to hospitals and schools – with a relatively simple, easy-to-install ceiling retrofit offering.

As school facility managers and indoor air quality specialists are discovering, a new ceiling system developed by a leading manufacturer offers a practical way to improve indoor air quality by blocking air from leaking through the ceiling plane and redirecting it to where it is intended to flow and can be filtered. This is accomplished through the use of uniquely designed and gasketed ceiling panels that drop into an existing ceiling grid system found in many school buildings. 

How it works

A tightly sealed room allows more air to flow through return air vents where it can be filtered or cleaned. According to independent testing, the specially designed ceiling can increase the effectiveness of in-ceiling air filtration by up to 40 percent.

Another application relevant to schools is creating isolation rooms or sick bays. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and ASHRAE, as well as many state health departments, have recommended that schools create isolation rooms or quarantine zones to keep students who may become ill at school from spreading illnesses to others.

Many schools have had to resort to temporary partitions in an attempt to avoid exposing others to the virus; since coronavirus is airborne and may travel throughout the ventilation systems. To avoid circulating the virus through the air, students with coronavirus symptoms need to be isolated in a negatively pressurized room where the airflow can be sealed off from the air flowing throughout the rest of the school.

When the self-sealing gasketed panels are inserted into a ceiling grid, they create a seal that reduces air leaks. As a result, airflow is better controlled to maintain pressure and directs contaminated air away from uncontaminated spaces.

Added filtration with UV purification

Another method of reducing airborne pathogens is ultraviolet light purification. Relied on for years in healthcare settings, the technology is now being used in schools and offices. A specific type of ultraviolet light, known as UV-C or ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI), has been scientifically proven to deactivate pathogens – including viruses like the one that causes COVID-19.  

A new drop-in ceiling panel is available that uniquely combines UV-C air purification technology with a ceiling panel. By continuously cleaning a room’s air with UV-C light, the system neutralizes 97% of airborne pathogens on the first pass based on third-party testing. According to the CDC, one advantage of overhead room UVGI is that it disinfects the air closer to and above people who are in the room, compared to on-the-floor portable filtering units.

The unobtrusively designed ceiling panels work by drawing air into a hidden chamber above the ceiling – exposing the air to UV-C light – and returning clean air to the room. The light is shielded within its chamber, protecting people from exposure. The physical location of the ceiling space creates air movement up and away from occupants, rather than across the room, again in comparison to on-the-floor portable filtering units.

Installing the panels can cost less than adding a new filtering system to a building’s existing HVAC system. These panels also help when existing HVAC systems cannot handle increased filtration or more air changes.

Tested at Neff School

Administrators at Neff Elementary School in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, were interested in a practical solution that could help safeguard students and staff from potential airborne pathogens. 

When they learned of the innovative ceiling retrofit, they readily volunteered to field test the system in one of their schools earlier this year. And they’re glad they did.

Gasketed ceiling panels and UV-C filter panels were installed in a 925-square-foot classroom that houses 19 students five to six hours per day.

The retrofit improved ventilation with a 30 percent increase in air exchanges. Increased air changes are recommended by both the CDC and ASHRAE as a COVID-19 mitigation strategy. 

Following the retrofit, independent testing also confirmed bacteria and fungi levels within the classroom were greatly reduced due to the UV-C purification system. Independent studies performed in the occupied classroom found reductions of 68 percent of bacteria and 100 percent of fungi after installation of the UV-C system.

This can help contribute to healthier spaces by minimizing allergy and asthma triggers and by reducing the level of other infectious microorganisms in the air and the settling of those pathogens onto room surfaces.

Commenting on the retrofit, first grade teacher Tyler Jones says he appreciates the steps taken to keep the classroom safer and healthier for both him and the students. “It provides peace of mind to know that steps have been taken to keep the air clean.”

Stimulus funding

According to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, there is an average of $2,500 for every school child in the country to be spent over the next 2 ½ school years. That is nearly $130 billion for K-12 schools to spend. 

Special funding and aid for school facility repairs is overdue. Adding UV-C purification systems is beneficial in areas such as the nurse’s office, locker rooms and bathrooms. American Rescue Plan funding includes funding for ventilation improvements and will ensure that schools can reduce the risk of airborne pathogen transmission by addressing HVAC repairs, upgrading to high-grade filters, installing monitors that track building ventilation performance and making other important facility repairs.

Indoor air quality in our school not only impacts the immediate health of people in the building, but it also impacts the quality of learning for students in the long term. For example, studies at the Indoor Air Program at the University of Tulsa have shown lower ventilation rates have been linked to missed school days caused by respiratory infections, and Finnish studies show positive associations between ventilation rates and performance on test scores.

Until schools have the cash in hand, they are making do by following recommended guidance on building sanitation and ventilation practices – and finding ways to repair and retrofit their current equipment. The path ahead for many concerned school administrators and facility managers will include practical and effective solutions like ceiling retrofits.

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