August 17, 2020

Protecting classrooms with ventilation

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
ventilation webinar

Avoid fans and hand dryers. Check ventilation in each room. Find out if your school has upgraded filters on its HVAC system.

These are some basic instructions from union health and safety experts.

Since proper ventilation plays a major role in keeping a classroom germ-safe for students and teachers, NYSUT, in partnership with CSEA, provided vital building assessment tools on two webinars last week attended by more than 600 union members concerned about COVID-19.

Participants were outfitted with questions to ask school administrators; HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) tools for schools from the Environmental Protection Agency; and school building planning checklists provided by NYSUT and co-host, sister union CSEA.

“This is going to be an ongoing narrative,” said Veronica Foley, NYSUT health and safety specialist.

Job number one for members is to connect with local union leaders, review the materials generated by NYSUT and plan for a discussion with management to learn about each particular HVAC system. The guidance created by NYSUT will walk you through questions to ask, including the important query on what is the school’s HVAC operating schedule? The system should be started two hours before the very first person arrives at school, and run for? two hours after the last person leaves.

Additionally, fans are discouraged, said Matthew Kozak, CSEA health and safety expert, because the virus could be blown to another individual. COVID-19 has a protective shell that keeps it more virile, he said. The use of hand dryers is also not recommended.

NYSUT and CSEA teamed up to bring you a webinar on ventilation in schools and how it can help lower the risk of COVID-19.. The program gives school employees an overview of building ventilation systems, applicable building codes and industry recommendations. Participants will learn what questions to ask management and what upgrades to advocate for.

The webinar is free and now available on demand.

Districts are encouraged to increase fresh air ventilation rates to the extent possible, in order to aid in maintaining healthy indoor air quality. Precautions must be taken that the air is not coming from areas where buses, parking areas, or even lines of children gather, because that could bring in contaminants.

Members were informed that, by State Education Department mandate, each building needs a building condition survey every five years. This comprehensive report looks at engineering, plumbing, ventilation, heating and cooling. Examining the most recent report can provide a wealth of knowledge.

“It’s important that we utilize what we already have a right to,” said Foley.

Basic ventilation checkpoints include looking for slotted vents under classroom windows — these indicate airflow. Check indoor vents to be sure they are not covered by anything in the classroom.

A simple way to check airflow is to place a tissue on a stick and hold it near a register to see if it moves.

Members should work with schools to assess these systems, encouraging checks to look for infiltration, primarily air leaking through windows and cracks. This can make the system work harder than necessary, and allow contaminants from outdoors to get into rooms.

Portable air cleaners with HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters can be provided in areas where there is a high occupant load, or in areas with poor ventilation.

Mark Stipano, CSEA health and safety expert and industrial hygienist, said it is important to find out who maintains the ventilation system – staff, or a contractor? Contractors might only check the system twice a year, while staff can do so more frequently. It is also important to know when the last time the filter was changed.

Important components in the HVAC system are dampers and air filters. Dampers allow the fresh air into the system, and air filters can catch droplets the virus could be on. It is vital to keep a check on these components. The current recommendation is that schools install at least a MERV 13 (minimum efficiency reporting value).

At one of the NYSUT webinars, 61 percent of participants were unaware if their school had upgraded to a higher filter; 24 percent said their school had not upgraded. While this terminology and level of detail may be new, it is important to understand and can inform conversation with the district.

“The higher protection level afforded by the MERV 13 and above filters also requires the HVAC system to force air through the filter at a stronger rate,” Foley said. Some systems, however, may not be able to accommodate this and need a lower-level filter, such as a MERV 8.

If the building has, or can accommodate, an economizer, then 100 percent outdoor air could be brought in. Stipano cautioned that the economizer needs to be monitored so that it does not run if it is too humid out. Approved air temperatures for schools, a standard set by the foremost indoor quality expert ASHRAE, are 68-74 in heating season, and 72-80 in cooling season.

NYSUT continues to stress using the district’s health and safety committee, required by SED. Foley reminded listeners that each health and safety complaint needs to be shared with the committee.

“Work with your colleagues, your union leaders, and the NYSUT labor relations specialists,” Foley said.