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Indoor Air Quality Tops Priority List as Districts Transition Back to In-Person Learning

Indoor Air Quality Tops Priority List as Districts Transition Back to In-Person Learning

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The Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council completed a survey on how school districts across the United States have prioritized and implemented air quality measures to reduce risk of airborne illness transmission.

This past year has been difficult for school districts. An ongoing pandemic, moving regulatory targets, space constraints, and limited resources have made the planning and execution of re-opening schools full-time a challenge. As such, many school districts spent most of the 2020-2021 school year utilizing hybrid and/or remote learning models.

When the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) updated physical distancing guidelines from six feet to three feet for younger school-aged children, it opened the doors for many K-8 schools to return to full-time instruction before the end of this school year. In addition, it brought new hope for all districts and grade levels to fully re-open buildings this fall.

In-person instruction requires mask mandates, strengthened safety protocols, and specific ventilation and filtration upgrades to protect staff and students from airborne exposure risks. A study by the Center for Green Schools at the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) polled schools across the nation to understand how districts prioritized and implemented indoor air quality strategies for either full or part time in-person instruction. The study detailed the experiences and challenges at 47 school districts, representing more than 4,000 schools and 2.5 million students across 24 states.

The study showed school districts relied heavily on mechanical systems to implement air quality measures. A high percentage of participating districts said increasing fresh air flow and filtration measures topped this year’s facility strategies.

The reason: evidence shows that when combined with source control practices, enhanced ventilation and filtration through engineering controls provides a comprehensive, layered strategy to maximize fresh, clean indoor air.

School districts have had to make customized decisions on how to best implement an Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) management program, which may include some, or all, of the following elements:

  1. Increasing outdoor air supply through the building’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system.
  2. Implementing a flushing process between occupancy periods, running the HVAC system for a pre-specified duration to reach targeted air exchange rates.
  3. Opening windows to increase outdoor airflow.
  4. Placing fans in windows to exhaust room air outdoors, removing airborne contaminants through filtration.
  5. Upgrading filters to higher minimum efficiency reporting values (MERV) ratings – 13 or higher.
  6. Installation of air cleaners with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters.

The pressing need to address IAQ has not been easy. Most school buildings are not designed to support upgrades to HVAC, ventilation and filtration systems, which are the highest priority when it comes to IAQ management plans. Some buildings are so outdated that there are no control systems in place for automation. Barriers like cost constraints, climate and weather challenges, supply limitations, and a lack of facilities resources have prevented widespread adoption of IAQ management plans.

For those with control systems, re-programming costs and time allocated for HVAC sequences to achieve the recommended strategies are extensive and time-consuming. Hiring technical support to evaluate systems, strategies and technologies is also an extensive coordinated effort.  

Stark Tech Group, a Total Facilities Optimization provider, has partnered with school districts across New York, Pennsylvania, and Florida to implement IAQ management plans that are cost effective and designed to keep buildings healthy, comfortable, and safe for re-opening.

The Stark team provides turnkey solutions with full mechanical electrical plumbing (MEP) design capabilities. Stark is a single source agent for master systems integration, building intelligence, and mechanical and electrical equipment. With federal funding aid available to improve indoor air quality through upgrades, retrofits, and replacements, Stark works with school districts to customize solutions that leverage their current investments. Stark also has an ESCO team in house for performance contracting agreements, offering off-balance sheet financing that pays for energy conservation measures using the utility savings over the lifespan of the agreement.

To learn more about prioritizing air quality measures and leveraging technology to create safe learning environments for students, join our webinar on Tuesday, June 8 at 1 P.M. EST.

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