AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Independent School District has launched a series of maintenance updates that should improve the quality of the indoor air within school buildings.
The district said its service center is working in coordination with the construction management team to “evaluate, identify and implement proactive solutions” to improve circulation, air quality and temperature.
Plans underway include:
- A prioritization of HVAC work orders above non-critical work orders
- Implementing air movers and air filters within building corridors to support existing HVAC systems. The equipment is deployed based on the age and performance of the system
- Purchasing of HEPA filters to be placed inside administrative spaces and health rooms
- Service center audits of HVAC systems to determine performance and identify weaknesses
Air quality experts say implementing some of these preventative measures can reduce the likelihood of airborne transmission of COVID-19.
“We are not seeing a lot of efforts or conversations around how HVAC systems are being improved to reduce the risk of infection,” said Serene Almonen, Chief Executive Officer of Senseware, a technology company that monitors indoor air quality and provides real time data regarding the components in the physical environment.
“Over half of the schools in the country need major system upgrades. HVAC systems are in the most need for repair.”Serene Almonen, Senseware
Almonen said that school districts often are unwilling or don’t have the budget to upgrade their HVAC and ventilation systems. Ripping out A/C units is a difficult endeavor and often is intrustive, expensive and time-consuming.
But the benefits of a maintenance overhaul are overwhelming.
New HEPA air filters will trap and reduce tiny particles in the air, which have the potential to carry the virus for hours. UV lights placed inside HVAC systems can disinfect the air before it circulates throughout the building.
Even still, it’s not enough to rely on air purifiers and an up-to-date HVAC system to minimize the risk of airborne transmission of COVID-19.
Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United States Environmental Protection Agency say additional mitigation steps, like social distancing and wearing masks, will significantly decrease the likelihood of the contagions spreading among close-quartered parties.
According to a Chinese study published by the CDC in July 2020, over a two week period in January, three clusters of families became susceptible to COVID-19 after being exposed to the virus in an air conditioned restaurant.
The study concluded that the spread of the virus could have been minimized by increasing the distance between tables and improving ventilation.
“The key factor for infection was the direction of the airflow,” the study reads. “To prevent spread of COVID-19 in restaurants, we recommend strengthening temperature-monitoring surveillance, increasing the distance between tables, and improving ventilation.”
The CDC has long petitioned for all facilities to circulate outdoor air as much as possible as long as it doesn’t pose any additional risks. Other suggestions include:
- Using high efficiency filters
- Adopting “clean-to-dirty” directional air flows
- Using ceiling fans with upward airflow rotation
- Using upper-air ultraviolet germicidal irradiation disinfection systems
However, the EPA suggests pairing these health decisions with a larger, preventative strategy.
“Although improvements to ventilation and air cleaning cannot on their own eliminate the risk of airborne transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, EPA recommends precautions to reduce the potential for airborne transmission of the virus… that includes social distancing, wearing cloth face coverings or masks, surface cleaning and disinfecting, handwashing, and other precautions,” the EPA warns.