Plans to safely reopen Oklahoma schools are plentiful, but not much can be done to improve air quality in buildings. School officials must rely on existing equipment that is not designed to filter out coronavirus particles.
Replacing heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems to meet new guidelines for addressing COVID-19 is cost prohibitive for school districts unless patrons agree to pay for it through a bond issue. Even upgrading current systems by incorporating higher-grade filters is expensive and is not always feasible, experts agree.
“The problem is so insurmountable that people aren’t talking about it,” said state Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa, who taught high school for 15 years.
The state House Democratic Caucus is drawing attention to the issue by including it on a list of “needs that must be met before school can resume in the fall.” The lawmakers argue that school buildings should meet ventilation standards for COVID-19 recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC on July 9 published steps office building managers can take to create a safe and healthy workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The guidelines are based on the standards written by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. The engineers group recommends a filter with a minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) of 13 for capturing airborne viruses and states MERV 14 filters are preferred.
Filters in most homes and commercial buildings are rated 5 to 12. Guidelines for school building upgrades set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency call for MERV 8 filters.
Following an Oklahoma Watch investigation into how the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics ignored female employees’ reports of sexual harassment and discrimination, former students of the school came forward with stories of how the misogynistic and toxic culture permeated their experiences, too.
“For years, we have used MERV 8 90% particulate filters,” said Susan Parks-Schlepp, public information officer for Edmond Public Schools. The district has 28 buildings ranging in age from many decades old to nearly new.
“What we are doing in units where adjustments are possible is to increase the fresh air makeup,” Parks-Schlepp said.
That follows the CDC recommendation for schools to increase the circulation of outdoor air as much as possible. If the HVAC system cannot filter or pull in outside air, the guideline suggests opening windows and doors where it does not pose a risk.
Many schools have windows that don’t open, said state Rep. Melissa Provenzano, D-Tulsa, a former teacher and administrator.
If the HVAC system cannot accommodate higher efficiency air filters, the best option might be to hold classes at an alternative site like a church or other community building, Provenzano said.
Teachers and parents need to know schools will be safe before they return, she said.
“There’s a lot of fear,” Provenzano said. “Some teachers are deciding to retire rather than return to the classroom with so much uncertainty.”
That adds to the serious teacher shortage Oklahoma has, she said.
Shawnee Public Schools Superintendent April Grace said two or three teachers have decided to retire in the past couple of weeks and more families than usual have signed up for the virtual learning option. But most teachers and families want to return to in-person learning if it is safe, she said.
The HVAC systems in the district’s eight school buildings are in the range of MERV 10, Grace said. Units replaced in part of the high school are the only ones at the MERV 13 level.
Voters in the Shawnee district will be asked to approve two school bond propositions totaling $18 million on Aug. 25. About $4 million would go to HVAC system replacements and upgrades, Grace said.
Meanwhile, the current systems will be set to pull in more outside air.
“It may feel muggy,” Grace said. She compared it to a car air-conditioner that provides maximum cool by recirculating the air inside the vehicle. When it is set to bring fresh air into the mix it doesn’t feel as cool.
The Tulsa Board of Education voted last week to allocate $300,000 to upgrade HVAC systems at 31 schools to ensure the maximum amount of outside air is circulating throughout the buildings. The money will come from 2015 bond funds.
Tulsa Public Schools leaders are set to meet with health officials this week to assess health risks and to decide Aug. 3 how school will resume this fall – in-person, distance learning or staggered attendance with social distancing.
Yukon Public Schools has no current plans to upgrade its HVAC systems, which would be a multimillion-dollar process, Superintendent Jason Simeroth said.
“Everything is changing and that may happen at a later date, but as of now the answer is no,” Simeroth said.
Most Oklahoma school districts are receiving emergency federal relief dollars to cover expenses related to COVID-19, but the allocations are not large enough to address HVAC upgrades. Many districts, including Yukon, report they are using the funds to purchase the technology and connectivity needed to reach all students during distance learning.