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For some students, back to school will mean better-ventilated classrooms

Billions of federal dollars available to improve schools have yet to be spent, but some districts have made strides in making changes that experts say could stymie the spread of the coronavirus and other viruses.
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When students at the Gallipolis City School District in southeast Ohio return from summer break, they’ll be sitting in classrooms with air cleaned and freshened by almost $4 million in refurbishments.

The district retrofitted once-inefficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems at five of its schools, adding new equipment with higher rated filters, automation and ultraviolet irradiation. 

For a district with about 2,000 students, it’s a sizable investment — paid for by the federal government with Covid relief funding. School leaders hope it buys them peace of mind after two years of pandemic disruptions. 

“Our students are behind … the least we can do is provide them, you know, a comfortable climate with good air quality,” district Superintendent Craig Wright said. “It helps reduce the spread. I think it helps increase the likelihood that we don’t have to use masks. Nobody likes to use a mask.”

Gallia Academy High School in Gallipolis, Ohio.
Gallia Academy High School in Gallipolis, Ohio.NBC News
Carrier AquaForce brand air chiller units adjacent to Gallia Academy High School in Gallipolis, Ohio.
Carrier AquaForce brand air chiller units adjacent to Gallia Academy High School in Gallipolis, Ohio.NBC News

The overhaul is one of many made to schools across the United States as part of an effort to dramatically cut the risk of infection from the coronavirus. They’re changes experts say could have broader benefits in reducing the spread of infectious diseases that can often sweep through schools.

Changes have not been uniform. Billions of federal dollars available to improve ventilation have yet to be spent. Surveys suggest some school leaders weren’t sure how they could access that money and experts are warning that some rural schools could be falling behind. 

Better indoor air quality can dramatically cut the risk of infection from the virus that causes Covid, which has made improving ventilation and filtration in aging U.S. school buildings a priority for the White House during a stage of the pandemic in which fewer people are using masks and are willing to tolerate quarantines. The federal government has offered hundreds of billions of dollars in Covid relief funding for schools, with much of it available to renovate and boost ventilation and filtration. 

Experts say the rare boost of funding for aging school facilities could be transformative not just for Covid prevention, but also for air quality issues that have slowed students’ thinking, worsened asthma and spread diseases for decades. But there are signs that some schools aren’t making use of the windfall and that many face obstacles to cleaning the air and protecting children. 

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report in June from surveys completed in February and March found fewer than 40% of a nationally-representative sample of schools reported utilizing federal Covid relief funding for expensive upgrades to heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. Instead, many were taking low-cost and potentially less-effective measures, such as keeping windows open. 

“There may be groups of schools, or subgroups of schools, that even though the money was out there, they may need some additional support,” said Catherine Rasberry, an author of the report who is also part of the CDC’s COVID-19 Emergency Response Team. 

A vent system in a classroom at Gallia Academy High School in Gallipolis, Ohio.
A vent system in a classroom at Gallia Academy High School in Gallipolis, Ohio.NBC News

With the CDC loosening pandemic guidance on quarantines and with fewer masks worn in school hallways, better ventilation and filtration becomes even more critical to keep children healthy and attending in-person classes. 

These measures “are a way to dramatically reduce risk in spaces, regardless of whatever else is happening,” said Jacob Bueno de Mesquita, a postdoctoral researcher studying indoor environment at federal research facility Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, adding that superspreading events could be cut down or better controlled.

School facilities across the U.S. were in tough shape even before the pandemic. More than half of public schools needed to replace multiple building systems, according to a 2020 Government Accountability Office report. Some 41% needed to update or replace their HVAC systems

A 2021 report found that the U.S. underinvested in school buildings and grounds by about $85 billion a year

“We know our schools don’t get the kind of investment they need annually,” said Anisa Heming, director of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit that advocates for sustainability in building and construction. 

U.S. school facilities have been lagging for years on indoor air quality, said William Bahnfleth, a professor of architectural engineering at Penn State University.

He said Covid called attention to the issues and was providing a once-in-decades opportunity for a widespread fix. 

Researchers have known for years that children suffer when indoor air quality is poor. Bad air circulation has been associated with outbreaks of influenza and other respiratory diseases, asthma and poor cognitive performance, de Mesquita said. 

Better ventilation can make for strong improvements. In one study, de Mesquita followed students in two different dormitories on the University of Maryland campus, testing them and their close contacts for dozens of respiratory illnesses. One dorm — newly renovated — featured a high-powered ventilation system. The other did not.

Students in the poorly-ventilated dorm picked up respiratory illnesses at a pace of nearly three per year. In the ventilated dorm, that number fell short of one.

“The higher ventilated dorms didn’t spread as much virus,” de Mesquita said. 

Studies have observed similar impacts from Covid. One recent study, which has yet to receive a peer review in a scientific journal, examined the risk of infection in more than 10,000 Italian classrooms, including about 360 that were equipped with mechanical ventilation systems. 

The strong air exchange provided by these systems reduced the likelihood of infection by about 80%, the researchers reported. 

“We have to know how much ventilation we’re getting in a school room,” Bahnfleth said. 

A number of technologies can filter, dilute or disinfect viruses and other germs. Centralized HVAC systems that introduce outside air, offer strong filtration and disinfect with UV could be among the most effective designs for schools. 

UV lights inside the air purification system at Gallia Academy High School in Gallipolis, Ohio.
UV lights inside the air purification system at Gallia Academy High School in Gallipolis, Ohio.NBC News
The sensor room for the HVAC system at Gallia Academy High School in Gallipolis, Ohio.
The sensor room for the HVAC system at Gallia Academy High School in Gallipolis, Ohio.NBC News

But many schools lack duct work. In those, schools could consider turning to HEPA filters or germicidal UV, Bahnfleth said. 

“Air cleaners in classrooms can be a significant upgrade if you only have minimum outside air,” he said, adding that UV is expensive, but could be an effective “add-on” for places where aerosols are common, such as choir rooms or lunchrooms. 

During the thick of the pandemic response, Congress passed three packages of relief now available to improve indoor air quality, including $13 billion in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, more than $54 billion in the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act and about $122 billion in the American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act. 

The different funds have varying deadlines for use; the bulk of the money — from the rescue plan — extends until September 2024. 

“That money is for anything and everything that schools could need to get through the pandemic and recover and operate schools as continuously as possible,” Heming of the Green Building Council said. 

The funding was a rare boost for school facilities. Typically, the federal government disallows schools from spending on facilities or capital investments, with the exception of disaster relief dollars.

It’s not yet clear how much investment has been dedicated to facilities or HVAC upgrades, Heming said. An analysis by FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University, estimated that school districts planned to spend about 9% of funding — nearly $10 billion provided by the American Rescue Plan Act – on HVAC upgrades.

But recent reports indicate there might be gaps. 

The CDC report said that rural schools and those considered midpoverty were less likely to pursue HVAC upgrades. Rural schools were more than 20% less likely to use portable HEPA filtration systems in classrooms than city schools. 

And only about half of school districts surveyed by the Center for Green Schools reported increasing the amount of outdoor air that circulates using an HVAC system since the pandemic began. Nearly half of the school districts surveyed said they did not know or weren’t sure if funding was available for additional HVAC upgrades.

Heming said educators report numerous barriers to healthier air. 

Many were dealing with old buildings that are difficult to upgrade. Small districts sometimes lack the experience or staff to manage the grant process, she said. Supply chain issues and a tight labor market for HVAC work have also constrained upgrades. 

Some school districts questioned how they could keep up with HEPA filters in need of regular changes. 

“It takes a lot of manpower to go around to each of these schools and change all the filters that need to be changed and maintain the schools,” Heming said. “They’ve used the Covid relief dollars to hire people to do that.”

CORRECTION (August 18, 2022, 1:35 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the name of the lab where Jacob Bueno de Mesquita works. It is the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, not the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.