Local school systems have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to improve the ventilation of buildings, install Plexiglass barriers and purchase gallons of hand sanitizer as part of efforts to get ready to bring students back to in-person classes.
Charlottesville and Albemarle school divisions worked over the last seven months to implement the recommended measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools. Since the school year started, no area schools have reported COVID outbreaks, which public health officials have credited to the successful implementations of the mitigation measures.
“COVID certainly did bring about these three different layers of protection for our staff and our schools and our students, but it will not end once COVID ends,” city Schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins said at last week’s School Board meeting. “… we will continue to have this type of air handling in our buildings well beyond COVID.”
Albemarle, which has had some students in buildings over the last quarter, has reported no cases among students, though 13 employees and one contractor have tested positive. Division officials have said that none of those staff members contracted the virus while at school.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends five key measures for schools to reopen. Those are consistent and correct use of masks; social distancing to the largest extent possible; hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette; cleaning and disinfection; and contact tracing.
About half of Albemarle’s preschoolers through third-graders will start in-person classes Wednesday, with the other half starting Thursday, as the division moves to the third stage of its reopening plan.
County schools Superintendent Matt Haas said last month that the division has spent $1.5 million to reconfigure learning spaces to ensure adequate social distancing, improve air circulation and provide equipment and supplies for regular cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces throughout school buildings. A specific breakdown of the spending was not available by press time.
Haas said he’s confident that those efforts and the other mitigation strategies will keep the virus out of schools.
“As far as transmission in our community, what I know confidently is that it does not enter into the school building because of the mitigation strategies that we have in place,” he said. “… The notion that what if we open our doors and a small number of our students come in and staff come in, that we are going to have outbreaks, is not accurate.”
The CDC has said that ventilation and air filtration can reduce the airborne concentration of the virus, thus reducing the risk of transmission through the air.
To that end, the school systems have upgraded the filters in school HVAC units and purchased high-efficiency particulate air filter units. These HEPA units will be placed in classrooms and other spaces in schools to help clean the air.
Filters are rated on a scale of 1 to 20 to measure their efficiency at filtering particles from the air, with those on the higher end designated for cleanrooms in labs and general surgery.
A MERV-13 filter is the recommended minimum, though 14 is preferred, according to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. Not all HVAC units in schools can handle those filters. In that case, classrooms and other instructional spaces will get the HEPA unit.
The 13 and 14 filters typically are used to remove respiratory droplets and tobacco smoke, respectively. Homes typically have a MERV-1 to 4 filter.
The county school division said in its planning document for reopening that it would improve indoor air quality and open operable windows. Building services staff have been able to fine-tune the HVAC systems in several schools to bring in more outdoor air, which would alleviate the need for open windows to improve ventilation and air quality.
Lindsay Snoddy, the county’s deputy director of building services, said the division has purchased 1,040 HEPA air purifiers for school spaces and 26 medical grade HEPA units for the health annexes where students and staff employees will go if they fail a temperature check or develop symptoms during the day.
Those filters will be put into classrooms when a MERV-13 filter can’t be in the HVAC units.
Using federal CARES Act money, the Charlottesville School Board approved an emergency procurement of 452 HEPA units for $142,418, which is one aspect of the division’s plan to improve the ventilation and air filtration in school buildings.
“We’re in competitive procurement situations because we’re all going after the same equipment,” said Kim Powell, the city school’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations, adding that the division has found a vendor and could purchase the units within the month.
In the actual HVAC units, city Facilities Management crews have installed filters rated at least MERV-8.
“With mitigation in general, it’s a layered approach with measure after measure” Powell said. “Even within air handling, we’re doing a layered approach.”
Charlottesville classrooms will have at least a MERV-8 filter, though most will have a filter rated 13 or 14. All classrooms have been upgraded to the highest possible option, though Powell said the filters for nine classrooms at Clark Elementary are on back order. Classrooms with a filter lower than MERV-13 or 14 will have the HEPA units.
“Every piece of equipment that can accept a MERV-13 or 14 filter has it except for the nine classrooms at Clark,” Powell said.
Classrooms that don’t have the needed filters will get the standalone HEPA units. Portable CO2 readers for each building are expected to arrive this month and will be used to measure the air quality.
Additionally, the city’s facilities maintenance team has made changes to the actual HVAC units to increase the amount of outdoor air in the system.
“One of the things they’re doing is called an outside air purge, two hours before and two hours after building occupancy,” Powell said. “And that has to do with completely recycling, pushing all the air out and then running outdoor air in.”
In October, the division released report cards of sorts to track the status of supplies and air handling changes for each school, as well as the procedures and protocols that have been written or are being drafted.
The division has all of the necessary supplies on hand to implement the CDC’s recommended measures. A number of procedures and protocols have been created, including a mask policy, contact tracing procedure, a room tag system and a COVID preparations checklist for buildings.
“The good news is we have disposable masks, and all kinds of things that were a little harder to get at the very beginning,” Powell said. “Now, it’s pretty much routine that you can get those things, so the key is monitor your stock levels and stay ahead.”
The division is still working on a daily checklist for classroom preparation, a protocol for visitors and vendors, expectations for families, guidance for non-compliant behaviors, and updated attendance information and guidance, among other things.
In early October, the city released an invitation for bids for contractors to procure and install dozens of bipolar ionization and UV light devices. The deadline was extended recently until Monday, and installation is not expected until early next year.
“What the city is doing is beyond anything I’m aware of,” Powell said of what she’s heard about in other school divisions. “I think this is exciting and a great thing.”
The city schools’ planning process for in-person classes, which could start as soon as Jan. 11, depending on the School Board’s decision, involves a COVID-19 checklist for each school. As part of the checklist, building staff will space desks six feet apart, post the maximum student capacity when accounting for social distancing outside each classroom, develop a plan for taking students’ temperatures when they arrive and take inventory of all needed supplies, among other steps.
Powell’s team developed the checklists over the summer and refined them in August. When the decision was made to start online, Powell said principals and teachers turned their focus to deploying technology and virtual learning supplies to students.
“And just how to do virtual the very best we can,” Powell said. “And I think that’s really, in a lot of ways, it was a very good thing to do. Because there’s so many things in the situation that are beyond our control that even as we go, over time, to more in-person instruction, we never know when circumstances could shift where there’s no option but to go back to virtual, and so to have everyone, including our families, knowing what that looks like, and being as prepared as we can to do that the best we can, I think that’s really a good thing to have.”
While the school staff focused on virtual learning, custodians completed special trainings with outside groups, and the division brought in more of the needed equipment.
“I went back after the beginning of October, and said, ‘OK, now, let’s start to get these things not just in place, but also visibly in place and use this checklist to go around and just doublecheck that everything is done for all spaces,’’ Powell said.
Over the summer, building staff started the process of determining the classroom furniture placement and what needs to go into storage.
“It’s like anything with procedures and protocols — over time, you try to refine and improve everything you put out,” Powell said. “It’s always learning and refining as we go because it’s all so new.”