Student safety and momentum amid COVID-19 and financial upheaval
Caught between public health and economic crises, school district leaders join architects, interior designers, and engineers to explore ideas for preventing spread of COVID-19 among students while minimizing expenses.
Here we are, more than two months after the coronavirus brought commerce to a virtual standstill, and yet uncertainty and mixed messages continue to afflict the national discussion about COVID-19.
Some states have begun to reopen, while others are taking a more cautious “wait and see” approach. Testing is inexact—this week, a CNN article warned, “Antibody tests for Covid-19 wrong up to half the time, [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] says.”
There is a great deal of fluctuating and conflicting information regarding the most effective way of preventing the spread of COVID-19. For instance, we initially thought people were at major risk of contracting the coronavirus through contact with surfaces. Recently, the CDC revealed that the coronavirus “does not spread easily” from “touching surfaces or objects.” Moreover, whereas the CDC recommends six feet of social distancing, the World Health Organization (WHO) only advises that three feet between people are needed.
In the midst of a public health crisis and an economic crisis, school leaders are considering ways to safely resume classes in the fall despite the budgetary restrictions that afflict them. Earlier this month, for example, the State of Ohio announced a $300 million cut in K-12 school funding.
At first glance, the default solution seems to be to just keep schools closed and continue employing distance learning. But as districts and many of us with children have learned, such a solution is fraught with challenges ranging from parents working to socio-economic disparities.
Keeping these challenges in mind, Legat hosted our third EDEngage session. This time, Midwestern public school superintendents, business managers, and facilities personnel joined our architects and interior designers, along with a few of our partnering engineers. The open forum focused on indoor air quality, indoor educational layouts, cleaning procedures, and much more.
Though the CDC has created a comprehensive checklist for how schools can help prevent the spread of coronavirus, districts continue to wait for a clearer direction from state agencies. Some districts, tired of waiting or an answer, have started to prepare for the worst-case scenario of students not returning to schools at all next year.
Many Midwestern districts are looking into a hybrid approach: group A goes to school on Mondays and Tuesdays, facilities personnel do deep cleaning on Wednesdays, group B goes on Thursdays and Fridays, and then maintenance cleans again over the weekend.
Another option that schools are considering is a three-group ABC strategy that involves the whole family. Each group of children and parents goes into school/work for a week, then stays home for two weeks. This way, anyone who is exposed to the virus gets a two-week quarantine period. This, of course, assumes that employers are willing to cooperate with such a method.
Brian Hamler, superintendent of Ohio’s Whitehall City Schools, said, “There is a lot of planning without knowing what the guide rails are going to be.” His 3,400-student district is contemplating a “parent choice model,” which involves creation of a “digital academy” for students whose parents are reluctant to send them back to school despite safety protocols.
Hamler is also weighing the possibility of distributing his district’s youngest students (e.g., K-3 or K-5) throughout all district schools (including the middle and high school), which would leave older students at home for distance learning and helping parents. In this scenario, teachers (rather than students) would change classrooms.
Then again, Legat President and CEO Patrick Brosnan said that one educational client balked at the idea of closing doors to high schoolers during their freshman year, which is a “critical time for getting into the routine and making the transition.”
Choke Points: Transportation and Queuing
A major concern among districts is transportation, especially buses. What is a district to do if, for instance, social distancing regulations limit buses to roughly ten percent of their previous capacity? It’s nothing short of a logistical nightmare.
Legat’s Kurt Volkman has conducted a bus study showing that if districts adhere to the CDC guideline of six feet between students, a typical bus that seats 71 students (12 benches per side) would have to drop down to only eight students plus the driver! However, according to Volkman, if buses add acrylic guards, that will increase the capacity to 24 (one student per bench).
Another problem is students queuing to get into school. “How do students line up during inclement weather?” asks Volkman. “You can’t have them outside and keep social distancing if it’s snowing, raining, or extremely cold.”
He suggests that schools look to larger interior spaces. Gymnasiums are a strong option because of their exterior doors. Schools would have to find a way to get students in and screened while maintaining social distancing. When the gym is emptied, maintenance personnel could then conduct a thorough cleaning.
The forum also discussed current testing shortcomings from their lack of dependability to who’s going pay for them.
HEAPY’s Client Strategies Leader and mechanical engineer Amanda Doenges said that some higher education institutions that implemented on-campus testing were paying $20 per test. School districts would have to cover a similar cost, plus (unlike typical college students) preK-12 students go home every day and interact with potentially exposed siblings and parents.
Doenges’s coworker and fellow engineer Jeremy Fauber introduced another concern. “Even if funding is in place, what are the legal implications of mandatory testing? And if parents say no, then what?”
Hamler does not believe testing is feasible at this point . . . especially after hearing that half the tests in Ohio are coming back with a false negative. If that happens and the subject is still experiencing symptoms, students will have to undergo another test that requires 72 hours before getting results. The recommendation in Ohio, he said, is to do temperature checks before students get on the bus, but his district is encouraging parents to drive their children.
Engineers and Facilities Personnel Weigh In
The CDC recently stated that COVID-19 may not have the same levels of surface contamination as originally believed. The virus does, however, pose an airborne threat.
One of the easiest and quickest ways for districts to combat the virus is to increase outside air. Scott Gaunky, director of facilities at Lincolnshire-Prairie View School District 103 (Illinois), recommends adhering to American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) guidelines and opening windows two hours before the space is occupied.
Of course, the downside to keeping windows open is a significant energy impact. Jeff Oke, mechanical engineer with IMEG, points out budget-strapped districts will have to pay more to heat and cool spaces if they let in a great deal of outside air.
Legat’s Robin Randall suggested that districts, particularly during fall and spring, might want to take a cue from what some Dutch schools are doing: asking students to dress for the weather and opening all the windows.
Oke revealed that one of the biggest challenges with the coronavirus is that it takes the form of a large respiratory droplet, which makes it difficult for the HVAC system to carry the virus back to a unit where it can be filtered before the air gets redistributed throughout the building.
Fauber added that although the smaller coronavirus aerosol droplet nuclei can stay in the air for days, they deactivate within three hours. However, because many schools built over the past few decades have decentralized designs (e.g., heat pumps, chilled beams, variable refrigerant flow [VRF]), it can take longer for systems to clean with outside air. Centralized systems can also have challenges. He gives the example of a variable air volume (VAV) system that, when at or near minimum airflows, can take two to three hours—sometimes even longer—to remove 99% of viruses in the air.
BranchPattern engineer and anthropologist Marcel Harmon encourages districts to think about using larger volume spaces in conjunction with increased ventilation to optimize the benefits from diluting any virus particles present, reducing the risk of infection. He also urges facilities personnel to consider their HVAC system Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) filter ratings. If the school is using a standard MERV 8 rating, then “bumping up to MERV 13 can have a substantial impact on reducing airborne contaminants.”
Another disinfection topic that came up during the forum was ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI), short-wavelength ultraviolet light that kills or inactivates microorganisms. UV radiation is harmful to humans, so this method must be used with care. Harmon said that its use in occupied spaces is limited to upper room UGVI applications in high ceiling rooms where the lights irradiate the upper zone while shielding the lower occupied portion. While its value begins to decrease at air change rates greater than 6 ACH, its effectiveness can be enhanced with ceiling fans running in reverse, pulling up virus particles high enough for the light to destroy them. Districts can also purchase portable UVGI units that can be taken into unoccupied rooms to disinfect surfaces and capture airborne particles.
Another option, according to engineer Kathryn Duytschaever of RTM & Associates, is a standalone air filtration system that can pick up droplets closer to the floor. “It’s not just something you can pull off the shelves at Menards,” she said. “These are wheeled-in cart units.” One drawback for these systems: they are noisy and it may be difficult for teachers or students, especially the youngest ones, to speak over them.
Preparing the Classroom
Hamler shared that the typical elementary school has eight times the density of New York City—this underscores the difficulty of achieving social distancing within schools.
Legat interior designer Sylvia Kowalk has studied ways of achieving social distancing within the classroom. One possibility is taking the teacher away from the front of the classroom and instead making the teacher mobile or stationed at the back. She also brought up the complexity of keeping students, especially the young ones, mobile while maintaining social distancing. A potential solution involves working with movable bookcases or partitions that enable students to move around without getting too close to one another.
Volkman recently completed a second study for reopening of schools. His test fit shows that an 860-square-foot classroom could fit 13 to 14 students plus a teacher while still allowing movement within the space. If districts accept WHO’s social distancing guidelines of three feet, Volkman’s model increases capacity to 19 to 21 students per classroom. He said that a classroom fully loaded with furniture complicates the matter.
Facilities personnel on the EDEngage forum suggested consulting the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) List N: Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2. Kyle Mathews, director of maintenance and facilities at Lakewood Local School District (Hebron, Ohio), advocates asking the product manufacturer for the EPA registration number and using that to consult the list.
Mathews used the list to cross-reference an electrostatic sprayer he uses to disinfect his spaces. Last he heard, sprayers are going for $1,000 and there is a six-month waiting period. Mathews and his staff “spray [their] way out of the room,” then place on the outside of the door a tag that says “cleaned.” If anybody walks into the room, that individual places the tag on the inside.
Gaunky and his staff are using a battery-powered electrostatic sprayer whose product comes in a gallon format. He said that spraying a 75,000-square-foot facility uses less than half the battery and only two gallons of the disinfectant.
Guanky also cautioned that many districts are too quick to wipe off bleach, which needs to stay on a surface ten minutes to do its job. He recommends as an alternative Oxivir TB wipes (also comes in liquid format): they have a one-minute kill time.
Additional coronavirus resources recommended by Harmon include CDC, T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University, American Industrial Hygiene Association (particularly for early childhood), American Institute of Architects, and ASHRAE. He also recommends closely monitoring countries in Europe, Australia, and Asia that have reopened their schools.
Read a summary of our first (Midwestern school superintendents discuss impact of COVID-19) and second (School leaders discuss challenges of returning to class in fall) EDEngage sessions.
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