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KSL Investigates If Utah Schools Are Doing Enough to Vent The Virus

BRIGHAM CITY, Utah — Back-to-school guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say a lot about more frequent sanitization, face coverings and social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But those guidelines say very little about a potential superspreader in schools and classrooms: proper air filtration and ventilation.

Study after study suggested social distancing will do no good in a school where proper air filtration and circulation are ignored. Meaning, when fresh air increases, COVID-19 transmission decreases.

The CDC’s school guidelines only recommend that ventilation systems “operate properly” and that administrators “increase circulation of outdoor air as much as possible, for example by opening windows and doors.” However, the CDC instructed they should not be opened if doing so poses a health or safety risk to students.

Nationwide, an estimated 41% of school districts need to update or replace their heating, ventilation and cooling systems in at least half their schools, according to a June 2020 federal report.

That is especially true in older schools with outdated HVAC technology, faced with aging air conditioning, heating and circulation systems.

The fear on these campuses is that stagnant air will increase the risk of spreading the coronavirus. In Utah, that fear may be even greater for districts with buildings that do not have air conditioning.

Teaching While High Risk

Eighth-grade science teacher Sara Percy thinks about clean air often as she awaits the beginning of the school year amid COVID-19. She is also awaiting a kidney transplant.

“I have focal segmental glomerulosclerosis,” Percy explained.

Also known as FSGS, the disease causes scar tissue that damages the kidneys.

By definition, the 33-year-old Box Elder Middle School teacher is high-risk.

“For me and my location and my situation, I consider myself very blessed to be here,” she added.

That’s in part because Box Elder Middle School is one of only five school buildings in the district with air conditioning; 17 of the 22 school buildings in the district do not.

Box Elder Middle School teacher Sara Percy has a disease that causes scar tissue that damages the kidneys.

“We have a novel coronavirus and no one has an immune system response to that,” Percy said.

Still, the passionate science teacher has made the difficult decision to return to class this fall before taking a medical leave of absence to undergo her kidney transplant in October.

But she is taking her health into her own hands.

“I bought a molecule air purifier. It is proven to destroy viruses and bacteria in the air. So when I’m in my classroom, that will be running 24/7,” Percy said. “I want to live.”

Percy didn’t make the decision lightly. In the end, going back to school is a risk she has no other choice but to take.

“For financial reasons, I need to go back,” said Percy. She explained she needs the health benefits.

“Or find a different job. And I love my job, and I don’t want to ever give it up,” she added. “It is important to me to continue to be there for my students.”

Venting The Virus

In the schools without air conditioning, the Box Elder School District utilizes air handlers to provide circulation.

The Box Elder School District utilizes air handlers to provide circulation in schools without air conditioning.

“It’s the same with A/C or air handlers. As the air is coming in, they get pushed through filters,” said Superintendent Steve Carlsen. “The air handler is just great big motors – big vacuums that basically suck the air out [of the building] and then push in [fresh air from outside].”

The end goal? Increase air circulation to get more outside air into schools.

“I think the newer buildings probably do it more often than the older buildings, but they’re always constantly doing that,” Carlsen added. “We don’t feel like our kids are at any more harm because it’s not A/C’d because we are rotating the air around.”

CDC officials say if schools can’t meet the recommended ventilation rate, opening windows or using a box fan to vent more outside air into the classroom can help.

Carlsen said most Box Elder school windows don’t open because, for the air handler system to work, the building must be properly pressurized. It can’t be with open windows.

“In this case, it is not as good as it should be, but it is a fact,” Carlsen said.

In response to COVID-19, the district is ordering more effective air filters for the handlers and will rotate those filters more often.

Although the filters in Box Elder schools won’t be hospital-grade, Carlsen told the KSL Investigators the filter upgrade is significant. They’ll be moving from MERV-8 filters to MERV-13.

Air filters are rated by a standard known as “minimum efficiency reporting value.” A higher value MERV rating means it has “finer filtration” and therefore, fewer contaminants can pass through it.

“High-efficiency particulate air” filters are commonly used in hospitals. These high-end, heavy-duty filters remove at least 99.97% of airborne particles. Some doctors suggest schools should consider moving to hospital-grade air filters, so fewer contaminants get through.

Every school district in Utah has a plan to vent the virus.

For example, representatives of the Granite School District said they have retrofitted all of their HVAC systems with hospital-quality air filtration devices.

According to the Park City School District, crews have installed MERV-13 air filters, “adjusting controls and handlers to ensure 50% fresh air is cycling through buildings, ionizers within air handlers, electrostatic cleaning devices and a UV light air filtration/cleaning machine.”

The Davis School District is also installing air-filtering systems.

The Alpine School District will upgrade its filters, from MERV-10 to MERV-13, but only in classrooms where respiratory risk factors come into play – like choir and theater. The KSL Investigators have been told the MERV-13 filters have been ordered but have not yet been delivered due to a high-demand delay, so they will likely not be in place before the district’s first day of school on Aug. 18.

“Currently we have no data that tells us a droplet can survive while flying through an air filtration system up on the roof and back through the ventilation system,” said Kimberly Bird, spokesperson for Alpine School District. “So, although there is a delay on getting the MERV-13 filter in, there’s no substitution for surface cleaning. We are focused and committed to our cleaning protocols.”

The Box Elder School District plans to begin the new school year on Aug. 31. Students will attend half days Monday through Friday for the first two weeks of school to help alleviate heat issues caused by the lack of air conditioning in a majority of the school buildings and to help the district adjust to COVID-19 precautions, including increased sanitization procedures.

The district will likely be paying close attention to other schools across the state that start two to three weeks earlier.

The Cost Of Clean Air

Some HVAC experts argue schools should be doing a lot more to improve their air systems far beyond installing more effective air filters on campus.

“There are various technologies that can be used to treat for viruses, bacteria and such,” explained Doug McPhie, owner of Beehive Duct Cleaning.

McPhie installs air purification units in homes. He said there are at least three better treatment options to kill viruses in the air. They are:

  1. Ultraviolet radiation (UV) Light
  2. Ozone
  3. Hydroxyls

McPhie’s recommendation for schools would be a hydroxyl generator.

They use disassembled water vapor (a hydrogen atom and oxygen) to form a hydroxyl, which disinfects and naturally cleans indoor air from viruses, bacteria, mold and odor.

“The nice thing about hydroxyls is you can occupy the space,” McPhie said.

Meaning, a classroom utilizing hydroxyl technology can be treated while school is in session and students are present.

However, adding them to schools wouldn’t be cheap.

McPhie said one commercial unit costs about $2,000 and one unit is needed per furnace system.

“We ought to put one in every classroom,” McPhie said.

A commercial unit could technically cover around four classrooms. To cover all of Box Elder Middle School’s 54 total classrooms, the school would need 14 units. That’s a $28,000 price tag for just one school.

“That sounds pretty inexpensive to me, for what they’d be getting,” McPhie said.

Still, McPhie stressed any of these treatments should be combined with wipe-down surface sanitization to ensure the millions of viruses on high-traveled solid surfaces are also treated after human contact.

Box Elder Parents Step Up

Although the issue with a lack of air conditioning has been a hot topic for a few years in Box Elder County, COVID-19 has sent parents’ grassroots efforts to get individual A/C units into classrooms into overdrive.

“If our children are going to school with masks on, then it’s going to be even warmer for them,” Amber Morrill explained.

Amber Morrill

The mother of four has children at the elementary, middle and high school in the Box Elder School District.

Morrill is one of more than 200 members of a local Facebook group aimed at helping cool down district classrooms by buying individual A/C units. Each unit the group is providing costs about $300.

After rallying tremendous support from parents online, so far, the parent group has raised enough money for 30 units. Approximately 150 families have donated to the cause.

Amber Morrill has children at the elementary, middle and high school in the Box Elder School District.

Still, these are makeshift solutions and Morrill understood that.

“It may take a classroom that’s 85 degrees down to 75 degrees. So, just kind of take the edge off,” Morrill said. “Hopefully that’ll just keep the air moving and not settle places and we can just [have] another weapon we can use to fight this.”

Moms like Morrill were happy to do what they can, even though they have little concern about their own children contracting COVID-19.

“From what I’ve seen and learned about it, I’m not worried about my children getting it and them being harmed. But, I do worry about the staff and the teachers,” she explained.

Morrill said she’s fine with parents coming together to do things for students, teachers and staff – even if it’s spending money of their own, rather than the district doing so.

“They’ve asked and we have said, ‘No, don’t spend the money to do that,’” she added.

During the Dec. 2019 school board meeting, results of an outreach survey on air conditioning were presented to board members. The survey revealed a majority of parents (48%) want to keep the current practice of enduring two to three weeks of uncomfortable conditions without A/C rather than retrofitting older schools. Air conditioning systems would be included in all future school buildings, when the cost to incorporate it during construction is much less expensive.

Only 8% of parents who answered the survey supported a bond to cover the cost of retrofitting all district school buildings with air conditioning. Had more parents voted for this option, it would have cost homeowners with an assessed home value of $231,000 an estimated $12 per month for 10 years to pay for the air conditioning.

Since A/C conditions will likely remain the same in Box Elder School District for the foreseeable future, parents said they still have a long way to go but are confident their efforts to get portable A/C units in classrooms will get there.

In fact, the local Papa Murphy’s chain in Brigham City is donating a certain percentage of sales between Aug. 26-31 toward the units.

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

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