State assesses COVD-19 threat to school air

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By JUDY PUTNAM
Capital News Service

LANSING – A new statewide program aims to block COVID-19 from spreading through the air of Michigan’s school classrooms.

To address the pandemic, the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and the Department of Education want districts to report the status of  their heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems to the state. The survey could lead to dollars to further assess what it will take to improve the air that students, teachers and other workers breathe.

What help there is to upgrade the systems is still to be determined.

 “The whole purpose of the project, really, is to look at what is the state readiness for Michigan public schools to open, and what can be done to keep them open and keep students in those classrooms safe,” said Robert Jackson, the state energy ombudsman and an assistant division director in the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

A follow-up to the survey involves volunteer contractors affiliated with the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers and some state grants for licensed contractors to assess what it will take to improve air quality.

Jackson said his department is using an initial $150,000 in federal dollars originally designated for other projects but approved to be redirected for the Michigan K-12 Public School HVAC Assistance Program.

The grants will range from $1,500 to $15,000 to assess the district needs with priority given to schools in struggling communities. Those districts haven’t been determined, Jackson said, but will be among those affected by high poverty and environmental hazards.

The project is on a fast track, he said, with some quick fixes expected by November, others over the winter break and still others by the end of the school year. A survey was sent out at the end of September with the hope that public school districts across the state will report back as soon as possible. 

Some districts may need simple improvements such as new air filters while others might take extensive overhauls of their air systems. Michigan has 537 traditional school districts but the number grows to nearly 900 when charter schools and intermediate school districts are included.

Jackson said officials are searching for additional funding that will allow demonstration projects to use technology such as portable air filters and hand sanitizers that use ultraviolet light.

Ron Koehler, a retired assistant superintendent for Kent Intermediate School District now working as an education consultant, said he welcomes state dollars to address capital needs as Michigan’s system relies on local taxes to build and improve school buildings, leading to deep disparities between wealthy and poor districts.

Some Michigan districts have opened for in-class learning, others use remote learning and still others offer a hybrid of the two.

Koehler, who will take over as interim Kent ISD superintendent in January, said schools that didn’t open this fall because of the pandemic often cited inadequate ventilation and inflexible spaces in older buildings that wouldn’t allow social distancing.

“The inequities are great. Anything that would help level the playing field and provide additional assistance for students who are in districts that have a majority of at-risk students, that would be a great benefit,” he said.

Scott Little, associate executive director of the Michigan School Business Officials, a Lansing-based association for school business management professionals, said his group has spread the word about the air quality survey.

“We would encourage schools to take advantage of anything like this,” he said.

At the same time, Little said, the scope of the project, so far, is limited.

“This is not fixing things. This is assessing things,” he said. “That’s my understanding of what this is.”

Jackson said the survey, with a follow-up assessment by licensed contractors of 150 to 200 school buildings, will help the state figure out the air quality needs and costs statewide. He also hopes to provide guidance to all schools on steps needed to ensure the best air quality.

“We’ve got to do something,” he said. “…In this program the idea is to get a profile of the schools, try to get an idea of where everybody is.”

The department has offered initial guidance with a flyer that advises districts to ventilate with outdoor air, increase system filter efficiency and supplement with portable air cleaners.