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Fighting illness with air handling

Schools seek improvements to air systems as a way to reduce airborne virus transmission

Kent County Picture a typical elementary school in Kent County.

It’s mid-morning on a warm and sunny March day, and 21 fourth-grade students are back in the classroom after recess.

Inside, they dutifully adjust their masks as they settle back in for their next lessons.

But as they exhale – still excited and maybe a little out of breath – they begin to add a variety of particles to the air, particles that in turn might be breathed in by their classmates.

This process, during a pandemic like COVID, has become a much greater source of conversation and consternation, especially as more is understood about how the coronavirus is transmitted via the air we breathe.

During a late-February 2021 webinar titled “A National Conversation on Indoor Air & K-12 Schools During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” hosted by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Dr. Delphine Farmer, associate professor of chemistry, Colorado State University, told webinar attendees that when it comes to budget allocations, schools would be much better off putting their money into ventilation and not cleaning supplies.

“I would not spend excessive amounts of money on fancy surface disinfection,” she said. “A lot of simple things work. The EPA has a whole list, and soap and water is one of them, so spend on ventilation and filtration. For COVID-19, it’s really about airborne transmission.”

Increasing air flow through the industrial air systems of building is a goal

Recommendations for School Ventilation

• Bring in as much outdoor air as possible and increase the system’s total airflow to occupied spaces
• Improve the level of filtration as much as possible without significantly reducing airflow
• Use child-safe fans to increase the effectiveness of open windows
• Consider having activities, classes, or lunches outdoors when circumstances allow   
• If students eat in a cafeteria, use methods such as opening windows, maximizing filtration and using portable HEPA air cleaners
• Use exhaust fans in restrooms and kitchens
• Reduce or eliminate HVAC air recirculation, when practical and with expert HVAC consultation
• Disable demand-controlled ventilation that reduces air supply based on occupancy or temperature 
• Consider running the HVAC system at maximum outside airflow before and after the building is occupied 
• Use portable air cleaners that use high-efficiency (HEPA) filters wherever possible
• Consider using ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) as a supplemental treatment, especially if other air handling options are limited


TowerPinkster – Back to School Safety

CDC – Ventilation in Schools

On an Island for a While

Local school districts are getting that message loud and clear, and some are happy to see the conversations catching up to where they already are.

“I think we felt like we were a little bit on an island for a while,” said Anthony Morey, the assistant superintendent of finance and operations for East Grand Rapids Public Schools (EGRPS), about his district’s efforts to improve ventilation and filtration.

Last fall, the district began to increase the amount of outside air it was bringing into its schools, eventually settling on double the amount of outside air it had been bringing in before the March 2020 COVID shutdown.

It also piloted a program of stand-alone HEPA (high-efficiency particulate absorbing) air handling units in classrooms. That pilot program started with eight possible units that became two finalists and eventually turned into a purchase order that as of February 1 sees every classroom and office in the district equipped with a machine capable of filtering all the air in the space anywhere from three to five times per hour.

The total cost was just north of $300,000 or about $1,100 per classroom, which, Morey admitted, though a heavily negotiated price with his vendor, was at times a tough sell in a district with budget troubles.

But last fall, when a surge in COVID cases closed high schools again, and health departments pointed to things like standalone HEPA air handling units as one factor they would consider in re-opening decisions, the tide started to turn for EGRPS. And now that the purchase can be taken from state and federal COVID relief funding, instead of the general fund, all the better, Morey added.

In late-February 2021, Johns Hopkins hosted a national forum on indoor air quality and K-12 schools

Towing HEPA Units from Room to Room

Teachers in the district have especially appreciated the increased outside air coming in and the HEPA units in their classrooms.

Morey recalled that when the program was in its pilot phase, and there were fewer units, teachers would bring them with them from classroom to classroom if they could.

Panelists at the Johns Hopkins event would not find that surprising. And like the board and administration at EGRPS, they believe the time is now for schools to invest in better HVAC and HEPA air filtration, not just because of COVID but because schools in the U.S. have fallen behind when it comes to clean, inside air.

A Government Accountability Office study from last summer found that 41 percent of districts nationwide need to update or replace heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in at least half of their schools. This comes to some 36,000 schools across the country in need of HVAC updates.

In Grand Rapids Public Schools, as part of the district’s return-to-learn planning which led to students returning to classrooms in January 2021, an independent ventilation audit was conducted by Strategic Energy Solutions

They reviewed the outdoor air requirements for teaching spaces in GRPS buildings, a calculation  John Helmholdt, district spokesperson, said was performed in accordance with the 2015 Michigan Mechanical Code, the current legal code for new mechanical systems in the state.

Helmholdt said that 16 schools required no adjustments, 14 schools required some adjustments and 11 schools required portable ventilation units in some or all classrooms. 

At a December 2020 board meeting, the purchase of 300 such units was approved. Units were installed at a cost of $562,500, paid for with state and federal COVID monies.

All the efforts around ventilation were necessary, according to Helmholdt.

“The health, safety, and wellbeing of our students, families, and staff has been at the forefront of all decisions related to in-person teaching and learning,” he said.

Delphine Farmer, a chemistry professor at Colorado State University, says schools would be much better off putting more money into ventilation and not cleaning supplies

More Fresh Air for Local Schools

At Kelloggsville Public Schools, Eric Alcorn, auxiliary services director, noted that his district also inventoried its buildings recently to determine needs for air handling and ventilation.

Like GRPS, several older elementary buildings need upgrading, but the high school and middle school, which are newer, were solid. And a new building in construction that will open this fall is being equipped with an up-to-date ventilation system.

“The challenge with older units is air movement and circulation,” said Alcorn. “To help address these issues, we use fans and mobile air purification units recommended by the CDC. When the weather is nice, we encourage staff to open windows where possible.”

More fresh air has also been a focus at Godfrey-Lee Public Schools where Superintendent Kevin Polston noted that like GRPS, some of the district’s buildings are 100 years old or more. Godfrey-Lee made adjustments to the amount of outside air coming into classrooms so that it is now double or triple what it would have been prior to COVID.

Polston noted that research on schools and ventilation shows a positive relationship between air quality and the quality of learning, so changes being made now to schools in response to COVID, he said, will still pay dividends even after COVID is no longer the threat it currently is.

“And COVID is not going anywhere anytime soon,” he added. “These changes also help for things like the flu, the common cold. These improvements will benefit us in lots of ways.” 

Jon Rumohr, a manager of mechanical engineering for TowerPinkster, says schools would be well-served right now to do whatever they can to improve both ventilation and filtration systems

Federal Funds Can Be Applied to Air Quality

Schools are also benefiting from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief II Fund (ESSR II), enacted on Dec. 27, 2020, under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act.

The ESSR II includes a specific provision under allowable uses of funds for “testing, repairing, and upgrading projects to improve air quality in school buildings,” and Godfrey-Lee’s Polston said he anticipates schools will take advantage of that in the months to come.

Jon Rumohr is a manager of mechanical engineering for TowerPinkster, an architecture and engineering company which works with a number of Kent ISD districts on new construction and renovation projects.

He said schools would be well-served right now to do whatever they can to improve both their ventilation and their filtration systems.

“Indoor air quality is always something we have been pushing for,” he said. “What we are seeing now is that some of the strategies around air handling are moving from places like healthcare to education. In the last four to six months especially, it seems like it is really gaining traction.”

To begin improving air handling, he said “make sure your current systems are operating correctly. Change filters as needed, check that the dampers and fans are working correctly. After you know everything is working properly, you can bring in more outside air if your system can handle it, upgrade your filters if your system can handle it.”

An air handling unit and associated heating water and chilled water piping, part of a 2019 TowerPinkster project at City High Middle School that included a dozen of these
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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan covers East Grand Rapids and Kelloggsville and is the lead reporter for Grand Rapids. He hails from Exeter, Ontario (but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985) and is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop. Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both journalism and public relations, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level for almost a decade. In the summer of 2019, he began his own writing and communications business, de Haan Communications. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children. Read Phil's full bio


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