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Clearing the Air as Students Return to School

Jay Stake, president, and Luke von Oldenburg, education chair, of the Indoor Air Quality Association (IAQA) share their top tips for maintaining good indoor air quality (IAQ) in school buildings that have sat dormant for months.


Jay Stake

President, Indoor Air Quality Association

Luke VonOldenburg

Education Chair, Indoor Air Quality Association

What is the biggest challenge you see schools facing today when it comes to indoor air quality?

These days, indoor air quality (IAQ) is being brought to the forefront because of the coronavirus, and people spending more time indoors and not commuting to work. This has brought up the importance of IAQ and the awareness of it. There are a lot of variables (e.g., colds, flu, chemical off-gassing, poor air circulation, poor air filtration) that affect the IAQ, which ultimately affects us.

The main challenge in obtaining good IAQ is to first diagnose what is causing the poor IAQ, and then to address the problem. Sometimes the remedy may be as simple as opening a window to allow fresh air into the area, then other problems can be more complex and involved. 

Is the problem related to a defect in the building? Is there water/moisture intrusion into the building/structure? There might be a need for a process of elimination to accurately diagnose. Is the cause biological, chemical, etc.? Sometimes the poor IAQ is caused by influencers outside of the building (e.g., buses running outside near classrooms, landfills or manufacturing stacks located upwind of the schools). 

With COVID-19 shutting down in-person learning, schools’ heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in a lot of instances have not operated for long periods of time. This can create poor IAQ and allow moisture to elevate when it would normally be under control. With the moisture increasing, the possibility of mold growth is highly likely.

Schools shutting down can cause a whole other set of problems to arise as well. The drain traps could dry out, allowing sewer gasses to seep into rooms. Legionella could possibly grow. Dust and other debris could accumulate in the building and then be circulated into the HVAC system when it is activated. The proper filtration of the air being circulated should be addressed when activating the systems and changing the filters more often at the beginning of operation.

Which technologies have you seen make the biggest impact in helping schools to ensure quality indoor air in a post-pandemic landscape?

As always, technology is constantly changing and improving. There are monitors that can be installed into the HVAC or throughout the school to monitor particulates, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, temperature, relative humidity, etc. You can also have an environmental assessor measure, test, and assess the conditions of the area(s) of concern, or the entire building/structure.

Along with the assessment being monitored or being performed, a building’s filtration is vitally important to the health and well-being of its occupants. Activated carbon has special properties that allow it to remove volatile organic compounds (VOCs), odors, and other gaseous pollutants from the air. 

A high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter is a type of pleated mechanical air filter that can theoretically remove at least 99.97 percent of dust, pollen, mold, bacteria, and any airborne particles with a size of 0.3 microns (µm). In comparison, a human hair can be anywhere from 40 to 300µm.

What would your recommendation be for a school or district that wants to improve its indoor air quality but does not know where to start?

Have an indoor air quality assessment performed inside the school.  The assessment would evaluate and determine if there is a concern inside the school, and if there is a notable concern, then develop a plan to remedy the cause. A simple starting point may be circulating a questionnaire for the staff to note any observations they may have seen recently; these questionnaires may be completed once a month or quarterly. The school staff are in these rooms on a consistent basis, and as such would recognize any changes, etc. 

Have the HVAC system inspected by a licensed contractor to verify it is operating as intended, and that the filters and the filter exchange program are appropriate for the intended location and the number of people.

If the problem is related to moisture or mold, IAQA will soon be releasing “The Standard for the Assessment of Educational Facilities for Moisture Affected Areas and Fungal Contamination.” This document will give the assessors and school personnel a consistent barometer in the mold and moisture assessment of educational facilities. 

What are some best practices for developing an effective IAQ program?

Have an environmental assessor assist in the development of the IAQ program if needed. Get the input of staff and all involved personnel in the development of the program. 

Keep it clean and moisture free; cleanliness is a very important aspect of a healthy environment. Develop a daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly routine for staff to follow (e.g., dust on a regular schedule, remove trash daily, remove damp/wet materials immediately). Use only EPA- and school-approved, unscented cleaning products, and follow the directions for proper use. 

Verify that the HVAC units and filters are being maintained, and that the work is being performed correctly. Develop a form that allows staff to notify maintenance of any existing or potential problem. 

If there are animals in the classroom, keep the cages clean and do not place them near the supply or return air vents. Keep students with allergies away from the animals. 

If there is a sink or drain in the classroom, do not allow the p-trap to dry out.  Remove excess moisture (window condensation), prevent drafts, and keep art supplies in airtight containers when not in use.

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