Schools scramble: Millions of dollars spent upgrading air quality during COVID-19

The air-borne, contagious nature of COVID-19 has seen southwest Ohio schools focusing on improving building air quality not only for this pandemic but for those possible in the future.

Schools in the northern Cincinnati and Greater Dayton areas have been collectively spending millions of dollars — much of it from federal COVID-19 relief money — on improving air quality since the months following the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.

Overall, Ohio school districts plan to spend about $500 million of the state’s total $6.5 billion in federal COVID money to upgrade ventilation systems, said Mandy Minick, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Education.

The motivations are tied to pandemic prevention measures painfully learned two centuries ago.

In the 1800s when London tamped down a cholera outbreak, a bacterial disease usually spread in water, it did so by upgrading its sewer system.

Similarly, some of the world’s top building scientists are now arguing that ventilation and filtration system upgrades are necessary to cut down now on airborne diseases like COVID-19 and perhaps others in coming years.

In an editorial published last year in the academic journal Science, these experts called for a radical shift in our thinking: “Building ventilation systems must get much better,” they wrote.

Bryan Schenk, the healthy building leader at Waibel Energy Systems, pointed out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ranks indoor air quality as one of the top five most urgent environmental risks to public health, and not just because of COVID-19.

Schenk said the pandemic has simply brought attention to indoor air quality from outside the building industry. On top of fostering occupants’ health, increasing a building’s clean air can boost productivity and focus.

“In schools, that means improved performance on tests and other screenings for students, as well as increased attendance,” Schenk said. “For teachers, that means improved performance and the ability for students to stay engaged with lessons for longer periods. In an office setting, that means improved productivity throughout the workday.”

ExploreDayton-area schools invest millions of federal COVID relief dollars in ventilation

Many of the public school systems in Butler and Warren counties have newer buildings, such as Fairfield Schools, which in 2017 opened three new schools simultaneously, all featuring state-of-the-art heating, ventilation and air condition systems.

ExploreVIDEO & STORY: 3 new schools: 1st classes for Fairfield’s historic opening

For Fairfield and other districts such as Talawanda and Middletown — with a new middle school and two renovated schools — improving air quality was largely a matter of upgrading air filters and adjusting newer air flow systems to bring in more fresh air to buildings.

“We have not upgraded our HVAC systems, the increase air flow was accomplished by increasing outside air fans to run 24 hours a day,” said Gina Gentry-Fletcher, spokeswoman for the 10,000-student Fairfield Schools.

Fairfield Schools have spent approximately $51,614 in advanced air filters since July 2020.

At Talawanda Schools, Treasurer Shaunna Tafelski said the district is using federal ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) monies for “upgrades at Talawanda Middle School currently for HVAC, improvement of air quality etc.”

Tafelski said due to the school’s age it “qualifies it to allow Talawanda to use ESSER funds,” which are estimated to total $600,000.

And planned window replacements at the middle school are projected to cost about $188,000, also covered by ESSER funds, she said.

Elizabeth Beadle, spokeswoman for the 6,300-student Middletown Schools, said federal COVID-19 school relief funds have also been used to upgrade air quality in some of schools.

“We installed a bi-polar ionization air cleaning system in all of the primary air handlers at Rosa Parks Elementary as a component of the building addition in the summer of 2021 using ESSER funding,” said Beadle.

“The project was completed in early September and it was designed as a pilot to determine if it would be an effective additional layer of protection to traditional media filtration already in place in the building HVAC system,” she said.

A century ago, it was standard practice to circulate more outdoor air in buildings to fight airborne infections, said William Bahnfleth, an architectural engineering professor at Pennsylvania State University, chair of the ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force and a signatory on the Science editorial.

“At some point, we assumed that medicine could pretty much take care of infectious diseases. You could be vaccinated against some of the worst things,” Bahnfleth said. “After the pandemic, we need to rethink and do something about addressing infection and risk mitigation with new (air) quality standards.”