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The ABCs of HVAC in schools

  • Kindergarten teacher Rachel Piper encourages Timothy Brewer, 5, (right) to continue eating lunch as her Sharon Elementary class prepares for an early release in Sharon, Vt., on Friday. Alice Meagher, 5, is at left. Piper added barriers between students’ tables for an added measure of safety. James M. Patterson / Valley News

Valley News
Published: 9/29/2020 3:51:23 PM

Since schools reopened earlier this month, many of them have kept students outdoors as much as possible. The novel coronavirus spreads through the air, and is more likely to spread in confined spaces, so schools retreated to the woods and fields.

But as it gets colder, indoor classes seem inevitable, and school officials have been racing to make sure the ventilation systems in school buildings are working properly. While state and federal guidance urges school districts to improve ventilation, it doesn’t set any standards, so Upper Valley schools are doing what they can.

“My understanding of the whole thing is that you need to try to make your airflow as good as possible,” said Brendan Minnihan, superintendent of SAU 43 in Newport. That can mean making improvements to a school’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system, or opening windows at regular intervals.

Newport spent around $60,000 on HVAC system upgrades, mainly to make sure the system was working as it should, Minnihan said. The state has not set standards for how HVAC systems operate, he said.

“The standard was, ‘Do the best you can,’ ” Minnihan said.

What New Hampshire and Vermont have given school districts is a set of practices to follow.

The Granite State’s guidance includes this: “Facilities should evaluate their buildings’ ventilation systems to increase auditorium and overall building ventilation, increase the number of air exchanges, increase outdoor air ventilation, limit internal air circulation, and improve central air filtration.”

Vermont provides a list of 10 recommendations that includes keeping windows and doors open when feasible.

Federal guidelines put out in June by the EPA are no more specific than the state guidelines. And neither the state nor the federal guidelines are requirements that schools must follow, though most schools are following them in the way Minnihan indicated – the best they can – and in the same way they are following other health measures that are required, such as wearing masks, maintaining physical distance, washing hands and staying outdoors as much as possible.

Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health released a report on health practices for reopening that encourages schools to improve ventilation and air cleaning and to monitor carbon dioxide levels “as a proxy for ventilation.” The school also came up with a standard for ventilation that says the air in a room should be replaced five times every hour, or once every 12 minutes.

In Vermont, lawmakers have sent $6.5 million to schools to improve their HVAC systems, VtDigger reported last week.

Sharon Elementary School is among the recipients, spending $85,000 to improve its HVAC operations, including making it possible to control the building’s temperature remotely.

The Hartford School District took action early on, Superintendent Tom DeBalsi wrote in an email, “as soon as we heard there was new guidance and some grant funding available for assessment and upgrades.” Work began in August with an assessment of HVAC in all of the district’s buildings, which found that most of the equipment was in good working order, with some in need of maintenance.

The engineering firm recommended upgrading filters in the system, and as in other districts, separating the exhaust from the nurses’ offices and from a designated “isolation room” for possible COVID-19 cases, from the exhaust for the rest of the school. “This is to prevent any contaminated air from a sick student or staff person from mixing with the HVAC system of the school,” DeBalsi wrote. The work is slated to be done in mid-October.

All told, Hartford will spend an estimated $118,000 on HVAC improvements and another $14,000 to place HEPA filtration units in the White River School, where classrooms lack mechanical ventilation systems, DeBalsi said. Much of the cost should be covered by grants from Efficiency Vermont and from federal and state COVID-19 grant programs, though the district hasn’t received confirmation of that, he added.

In a report dated Aug. 20, Joe Rigoli, director of buildings and grounds for the Windsor Central Supervisory Union, wrote that “Woodstock Union High School is lacking a viable HVAC system. We are waiting for a quote from Alliance Mechanical on increasing airflow in the high school portion of the building. Additionally, the middle school portion of the school is lacking in ductwork and a majority of the heating/ventilation units are not fully functional.”

In an email Friday, Rigoli said the school district is addressing those problems, through a mix of simple technologies, such as magnets that hold doors open to facilitate airflow, and more sophisticated ones, such as putting air purifiers in rooms in the middle school once the building’s heat is turned on. The district also has ordered a “make-up air handling unit” for the high school, which will increase the amount of outdoor air pumped into the building.

In a report to the Hanover School Board on Sept. 16, the facilities staff for SAU 70 wrote that schools in Hanover and Norwich have good ventilation and that a consultant had suggested improvements. Like other districts, and in keeping with state recommendations, Hanover and Norwich schools “will be focusing on increasing ventilation” by “flushing” the school with clean air and running the HVAC system for longer cycles. That would include opening windows and deploying fans where needed. HVAC units would have better filters, which would be changed every three months.

All of these improvements are happening as school districts begin to consider more indoor classes, and as low levels of COVID-19 enable schools to use more school facilities, such as cafeterias. That new phase began Saturday in Vermont, to allow for the resumption of interscholastic sports.

Vermont Education Secretary Daniel French said schools must continue to use basic mitigation strategies for the virus, such as the wearing of masks and proper distancing.

While the state is moving to Step 3 of its virus plan, there is no Step 4, although he said officials would be regularly looking at the details of the mitigation plans, French said.

“We will probably be in this extended period with mitigation strategies for some time,” French said.

Case counts have stayed low in New Hampshire schools, as well. Minnihan said he thinks Newport’s schools are prepared for winter and more classes indoors. With some students learning remotely, there are fewer in the schools, and students are accustomed to the hygiene requirements.

Still, he said, “I don’t think it will be as easy to manage.” It will be harder in winter to go outside for mask breaks, he noted.

Material from the Associated Press and VtDigger was used in this report.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.


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