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School Ventilation and You

by Toby Schoonover on October 30, 2020

Coronavirus School Safety: Classroom Ventilation Tips

To state the obvious, good health and safety practices in any workplace are essential to the wellbeing of anyone who enters the premises. The problem with schools is that they usually house far more occupants than other buildings of the same size; up to four times more, in fact.

Schools are also often forced to use spaces that are not necessarily fit for purpose, with portable classrooms or rooms that were not designed with the specific requirements of schools in mind. With the arrival of the Coronavirus, school safety has never been more of a focus and one of the largest factors in this is ensuring that the air inside our schools is as clean as possible.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “there is a possibility that spread of COVID-19 may also occur via airborne particles in indoor environments, in some circumstances beyond the 2m (about 6ft) range encouraged by social distancing recommendations”. This means that it is simply not enough to expect staff and students to actively social distance when on campus, rather more must be done to try and reduce the risk of airborne transmission by working to improve the indoor air quality (IAQ) in the buildings.

“But we’re educators, not health and safety professionals, how do we know where to start?”

The good news is that there are plenty of resources online to help you ensure that your classroom ventilation – and school ventilation in general – is where it needs to be when navigating Coronavirus school safety. These sources focus on various areas, including the types of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems used, amongst other topics.

The EPA’s Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Action Kit (whilst not COVID-specific) is a 3-page guide for schools with advice on how to manage IAQ, using a six-step framework, referred to as The Six Key Drivers, which are:

  • Organise: Work out where you’re at with current processes and systems, and what you’ve got as far as current policies and procedures goes, and then build a systematic approach based on your findings.
  • Communicate: Let people (staff and students) know of your plans and actions, and create meaningful conversations around the importance of IAQ, delivering updates when you can.
  • Assess: This refers to the environment, buildings and people’s views and it means doing it continuously.
  • Plan: Come up with a solid plan and write it down, working in smaller, practical steps to ensure that it is actionable and measureable.
  • Act: Educate staff and students around IAQ to encourage changes in behaviour and work to constantly identify the source of any problems.
  • Evaluate: Collate feedback, record successes and calculate the ROI for any changes made, selecting the most effective strategies moving forward.

It’s no wonder the EPA have placed such an emphasis on getting this right. Poor classroom ventilation is said to have a negative impact on student comfort, learning – and even attendance – and can result in long term health problems. And it’s not just the students that we have to worry about: teachers and other staff members are placed at a higher risk of symptoms like dizziness, fatigue and coughing when exposed to poor IAQ over long periods of time. Not good for our students - and certainly not good for our educators who have proven to be so vital to the country during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Alongside The Six Key Drivers, The Tools for Schools Action Kits specifically mentions “Quality HVAC” systems as one of its Seven Technical Solutions, with other listed factors including:

  • Control of Moisture/Mold
  • Strong Integrated Pest Management (IPM)
  • Effective Cleaning and Maintenance
  • Smart Materials Selection
  • Aggressive Source Control
  • Integrated Energy Management Solutions

Whilst all of the above aspects are important, we’d like to think that the reason that HVAC is listed at the top is because it’s the most important contributing factor when considering how to improve schools’ IAQ.

Experts say that - depending on the size of a room and the number of people in it (let’s remember that we said schools are far more densely populated than other premises, too) – the air exchange rate within a ten-foot by ten-foot room should be around six changes per hour. And when we say “air exchange rate”, we mean the number of times the air inside a room is replaced by the air from the outside. When we consider that this recommendation was made long before Coronavirus school safety was even a concern, we have to ask ourselves how we can do everything in our power to ensure that ventilation in our schools – and in particular classroom ventilation – is the best it can possibly be.

It is also important that we remember how classroom ventilation issues can vary based on something as basic as which subject is taught in the room. That’s why it’s extra important that we consider both classroom ventilation on a case-by-case basis, but also whole school ventilation as a wider topic. Think of the chemicals used in science-based lessons, or the increased heat or humidity in gym halls: these things are bound to cause more issues than pen-to-paper based subjects.

“I’ve got a better idea now, thanks, but how do I address poor classroom ventilation?”

Now that’s a good question, because the possibilities are endless. You might first think of a stand alone fan to help cool the air and circulate it around the room – but really what good is air circulation if the air being circulated is polluted?

Our recommendation would be to consider installing whole house fans in the areas that need ventilating. These fans are mounted between the classroom space and the roof area and work by drawing fresh, cool air through open windows and forcing hot, polluted air up to the attic and out through air vents mounted in the attic space.

Remember the six changes per hour? Get moving on your action plan now and get in touch with us today to find out how we can help.

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