Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

School reopening plans should address air circulation within buildings

June 29, 2020
Recommended steps call for altering HVAC systems to bring in more fresh air and filter the air to remove the coronavirus

As Americans contemplate returning to schools, offices and other indoor spaces, building managers figuring out how to reopen safely are focused on spaces where the coronavirus can spread—workspaces, bathrooms, elevators, and heating, ventilation and cooling systems.

The Washington Post reports that for schools and office buildings, wearing face masks and cleaning surfaces are not enough, according to experts. They are recommending additional measures, many of which call for different ways of circulating and filtering the air.

But these steps are often expensive and generally require help from professional engineers. And they can run counter to modern building design, which aims to seal the so-called building envelope to reduce heating and cooling costs. In the time of coronavirus, the goal is to bring in more fresh air.

“Across the nation, I’m really concerned about K-through-12 schools and universities not being prepared for the fall, when students and staff and teachers come back,” says Richard Corsi, dean of the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science at Portland State University, and an air-quality expert.

ASHRAE, which writes standards for indoor air systems, has determined that the risk of airborne coronavirus transmission indoors is serious enough that building systems should be modified to try to stop it.

Building engineers say the most important practice is to make sure that air turns over frequently, mixing in lots of fresh air, and that it passes through filters that remove viruses.

Some experts also recommend electronic devices, such as UV-C lights, that kill viruses and other microorganisms that may get past the filters.

But there’s a drawback — direct exposure to UV rays, and especially the shorter-wavelength UV-C rays traditionally used for disinfection can be dangerous to people.

Demand for solutions that clean indoor air and protect against the coronavirus is largely being driven by the market, not government regulation.

The result, in the near term, is likely to be a patchwork — some commercial buildings, schools, colleges and other facilities will make investments while others don’t.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy has been writing about education for American School & University since 1999. He also has reported on schools and other topics for The Chicago Tribune, The Kansas City Star, The Kansas City Times and City News Bureau of Chicago. He is a graduate of Michigan State University.

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