Getting “Schooled” In Indoor Air Quality

A charter school took several measures to create a safe, healthy indoor environment for students and staff.

By Anne P. Jennings, P.E.
From the December 2022 Issue

As the country continues to define what the “new normal” looks like, many influencers in the educational and healthy buildings arenas are in pursuit of a bold goal: to prevent schools from ever having to close again. Certainly, educational institutions of all shapes and sizes did an admirable job adapting to virtual learning models during the pandemic, but there was an inevitable disruption to learning that impacted schools in different ways and at varying levels. Teachers and parents alike offer numerous examples demonstrating that virtual learning is not equivalent to in-person learning. Additionally, we are now aware of shortcomings in our school environments, such as the great need for improved air purification and ventilation.

school environment
(Photo: Armstrong World Industries)

Whether we are living in a time resembling the gravity we saw at the onset of COVID-19 or facing a “typical” flu season, achieving a world where schools can remain open without disruption will require innovative ways to ensure safe, in-person learning. These solutions focus on the CDC’s recommendation that schools optimize ventilation and make improvements to indoor air quality (IAQ) to reduce the risk of viruses, bacteria, and fungi spreading through the air. In addition to these innovations, this bold goal will require strong partnerships that make these solutions practical and implementable for schools across the board.

Appropriately, when it comes to improved IAQ, within the walls of several schools throughout the country are lessons for other educational institutions to follow. And literally, these solutions have been found in the ceilings. One recent example can be found at BridgePrep Academy Charter Schools, a system of 16 charter schools operating throughout Florida.

Returning To In-Person Learning

school environment
Inside a classroom at a BridePrep Academy school. (Photo: Armstrong World Industries)

During the 2020-2021 school season following COVID-19, parents of BridgePrep Academy Charter School students had the option of continuing distance learning for their children or sending them for in-person schooling. However, at the start of the 2021-2022 school year, BridgePrep Academy reopened for in-person learning—all students were in school full-time.

School administrators wanted to reassure students and their parents, teachers, and staff that they were returning to a safe, healthy indoor environment where they would be protected from the spread of COVID-19 and other airborne illnesses. BridgePrep Academy administrators sat down with the team from SMART Management, which manages operations for all 16 of their schools, to strategize on how best to keep everyone entering their buildings safe from illness and disease.

Step one was to consider budget availability and potential sources of funding support to implement their strategy. The teams delved into the American Rescue Plan Act, which was passed in the spring of 2021. The act made more than $122 billion in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds available to state education agencies throughout the country to keep K-12 schools open and ensure their safe operation in the wake of COVID-19. Realizing the critical role HVAC systems play in IAQ, the BridgePrep Academy team looked to see if ESSER funds could be used to support HVAC corrections and filtration systems upgrades.

Upon discovering a portion of the funds could be used for this purpose, SMART Management applied for an ESSER grant that would enable the company to make the upgrades needed to improve indoor air quality at the BridgePrep Academy charter schools. They were awarded the grant in June 2021.

Unwilling to disrupt education any more than the pandemic already had, BridgePrep Academy and SMART Management decided to leverage the summer break to do the necessary work, which included replacing faulty air conditioning units. BridgePrep Academy and SMART Management also chose a UV-C air purification system from the Armstrong 24/7 Defend portfolio of air purification products. The solution of a ceiling-based product eliminated many of the challenges of portable floor filtration units, which are typically noisy, occupy floor space, and present a potential tripping hazard. The ceiling installations helped BridgePrep Academy minimize disruption to the classroom environment.

At first, most of the units were installed in classrooms because that’s where students spend most of their time. From there, they moved to common areas, such as the cafeteria, and from there, into hallways and offices. These purifiers are now neutralizing 97 percent of bacteria, viruses, and allergens in the air. Now, BridgePrep Academy teachers can point out the systems to parents and educate them on how the new air-cleaning technology operates during visits to the school prior to the first day of classes.

“The air purification units add an extra layer of protection that helps parents feel more comfortable about sending their kids back to school,” says Lourdes Pena, director of Facilities and Operations with SMART Management. “It’s something they can actually see in place that is helping improve the quality of the air.”

The story of BridgePrep Academy demonstrates the value and necessity of integrating the most recent technological solutions, budgetary resourcefulness, partnership, and strategic planning in order to make the greatest impact. By bringing all of these components together, they have been able to provide students and faculty with a safe environment conducive to educational excellence and uninterrupted education—without leaving a single school behind.

Indoor Air Insights

By Facility Executive Magazine

As of December 2022, major air-born illness concerns revolve around COVID-19, RSV, and flu cases. In a recent survey from Infogrid, which collected about 2,000 responses from the UK, more individuals are weighing the concerns of rising energy costs, verses concerns about heading into the office due to poor indoor air quality.

Indoor air quality pollution can come from a variety of sources—from combustion sources (or anything that features chemicals, including volatile organic compounds, that may be released into the air), new or degrading building materials, or outdoor air pollutants that find ways to get inside buildings, through open windows or through a ventilation system.

According to “Building Air Quality: A Guide for Building Owners and Facility Managers,” a report from National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in collaboration with other government organizations, facility managers should maintain good sanitation practices, provide adequate ventilation, and isolate pollutant sources. In order to make lasting changes when it comes to indoor air quality, facility managers should review construction and operating records to evaluate buildings conditions.

“A few years ago, air purification wasn’t on anyone’s mind,” says Dr. Tyler Orehek, President, North America of Airgle Corp, a provider of air purification systems, and Council-Certified Indoor Environmental Consultant. “Going into the next year, it’s safe to say that this is a subject matter that’s on everyone’s mind with great regularity.”

Future For IAQ

Dr. Orehek predicts that many will upgrade their HVAC systems, add standalone systems, or increase/improve ventilation systems. When it comes to upgrading HVAC systems, he says facility managers should understand that this may not effectively improve a building’s overall IAQ on its own. Instead, standalone units can be placed in specific rooms and purify the air in that specific space.  “The most efficient and effective way of purifying air is to use medical-grade, commercial grade, standalone air purifiers,” says Dr. Orehek.

Even if the worst is behind us with the pandemic, there’s still a greater responsibility on facility management to address IAQ concerns.

“Just as people go back to normal and become more complacent, that doesn’t mean the risk is any less,” says Dr. Orehek.

Anne P. JenningsJennings joined Armstrong World Industries as Segment Manager, Healthy Spaces in the spring of 2021. She is an experienced sales and engineering manager with a demonstrated history of working in the mechanical engineering industry. A strong sales professional, she excels in the skills of cost estimating, risk management, engineering, and energy management. Jennings is a graduate of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

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Click here to learn more about Indoor Air Quality (IAQ).