Schools need better air quality to curb COVID-19

Schools need better air quality to curb COVID-19

aAcross the country, K-12 schools start their next school year in the middle of the COVID-19 wave. As the BA.5 Omicron subvariable drives thousands of re-infections, schools have put aside safety measures such as mask and physical distancing requirements.

In response, some parents and experts are trying to improve ventilation in schools, because better air quality in buildings could reduce the spread of COVID-19 and even improve other health outcomes. But, despite readily available resources — including millions of dollars in federal government funding — many schools have not invested in improving air quality.

“We know ventilation is important to reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2,” says Dr. Catherine Rasberry, a scientist in the Department of Adolescents and School Health at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Ventilation is marked all over the Centers for Disease Control Tips for safe personal learning during the pandemic. Improving it could reduce school outbreaks and the disruptions they cause to families, as well as mitigate the risks of MIS-C and COVID is long in childrenTwo long-term conditions can result from COVID-19 infection.

Read more: What to do if your child catches COVID-19 between shots

Having good indoor air quality is also associated with a variety of other measures of student health unrelated to COVID-19. “Decades of scientific research show that when you improve indoor air quality, you improve student health, student thinking, and student performance,” says Joseph Allen, an air quality expert at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The improvements range from fewer asthma attacks and allergy symptoms to better results on tests of reading comprehension, he says.

What does good air quality mean

Tony Colaneri, a parent in the Chicago suburb of Evanston who has campaigned for better ventilation in his children’s schools, compares reducing the spread of COVID-19 to reducing cigarette smoke. “Imagine someone was smoking a cigarette on the other side of the room,” he says. In response, you can open the windows, turn on the fans and put a portable air filter next to the smoker; The same measures can take the coronavirus out of the air.

Allen and other experts recommend that classroom ventilation be consistent with a threshold of six air changes per hour, which means clean, fresh air circulates throughout the room every ten minutes. While the CDC does not issue guidelines for this scale, Many countries have recommendations Ranging from two to six air changes per hour.

says Devabhaktuni Srikrishna, a San Francisco school parent and infectious disease researcher who runs the website Knowing the patient, 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 past 20 or 30 years.”

To improve air change rates, schools can use low-cost options, such as opening windows and adding portable air filters. They can also upgrade or replace the HVAC systems—a more expensive strategy, but one that could be more valuable in the long run, Allen says. These and other procedures are described in A July report by Allen and other members of Lancet COVID-19 Committee Task Forcea group of multidisciplinary experts collaborating on the search for solutions to epidemics.

Read more: What to know about prolonged COVID in children

Students can even build portable air cleaners themselves. one famous model, Corsi Rosenthal boxIt can be built for less than $100. These DIY boxes can perform alongside expensive air cleaners, says Krystal Pollitt, an epidemiologist and environmental health expert at Yale University. The engineers at 3M the company that produces the filters commonly used for these boxes, Verify that the design is working.

But first, students and teachers may need to convince school administrators that poor air quality is a problem. Last spring, three high school seniors at Franklin Education Center, a public school in Philadelphia, studied their school’s air quality for a major project. Using air monitors, they found “remarkably high levels of carbon dioxide and humidity in the classroom,” says Siani Craig, one of the students. These levels indicate poor air quality and ventilation, which increases the risk of transmission of COVID-19 and other potential health issues that “interfer with a student’s education,” she said.

After Craig and her classmates shared their findings at a school board meeting, school leaders dismissed their statements, questioning whether their craft methods were effective, says Jessica Way, a teacher at the Franklin Education Center who worked with students on their project. But the students did not give up: they sent their works to the Philadelphia Teachers’ Union, local politicians and journalists. In the end, the district’s environment office repeated the student’s research, emphasizing that their school’s ventilation needed some serious upgrades.

Why schools struggle with clean air

Significant federal funding is available for schools to improve air quality, Thanks to the US bailout. But many schools haven’t made resource-intensive updates, according to June report from the CDC.

In a national survey of 420 public schools, the majority reported using cheaper strategies such as opening windows and moving activities outside. Only 39% reported replacing or upgrading HVAC systems in schools, and 28% reported using portable air filters. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working to better publicize federal resources for costly promotions, says Rasberry, the study’s lead author.

Experts say school leaders need to learn more about air quality issues to understand how important they are. Even if an administrator realizes the value of better ventilation, they will likely need to hire an HVAC expert to examine existing building systems, then examine that expert’s recommendations and evaluate potential upgrades — all of which may be “beyond their area of ​​expertise,” Politt says. For example, an administrator may be attracted to expensive air filters, even when handmade boxes work better while being much less expensive.

Schools may also face bureaucratic challenges in accessing funding or operating through regulations. In Philadelphia, for example, a “very conservative legislature” controls federal funds to improve ventilation, says David Packer, a school finance expert at West Chester University. “About a billion dollars are sitting in a bowl. They just don’t want to spend it.”

Some officials may even be hesitant to use portable air filters purchased or manufactured by local parents because they have not been formally approved by the district financial office first. And when portable filters are available, teachers must be taught how to use them properly. An air filter that was run on a low setting in a classroom corner, for example, might not work well.

What parents can do

Parents interested in improving ventilation in their school can learn more from publicly available resources, such as this flow chart From Bullitt and colleagues at Yale University and Srikrishna DIY Air Filters Instructions. They can also join growing community From fathers and mothersAnd the teachersAnd the Breathing experts on Twitter. Experts are often willing to share information and answer questions.

Campaigns to improve air quality in schools can take months. Sometimes, in response to administrators’ inaction, school communities will take matters into their own hands by building DIY air filters. In Philadelphia, a high school student project and Other efforts to monitor the air in the school launched a series of events to build these filters and push social media to advertise the project, Led by the local Social Democratic branch of America.

“Don’t let anyone deter you from voicing your findings,” says Craig, who wants her project to inspire parents, teachers and other students to advocate for better air quality in schools. “Continue to use your voice to create a safe environment for students to learn.”

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