Back to School
Webinar Panel Discusses How Schools Can Stay Healthy and Safe During the Pandemic—And Beyond
Working from Home but Missing Your Synergist? Update Your Address If you’ve been working from home during the pandemic, please consider updating your address with AIHA. You can change your address by editing your profile through To ensure uninterrupted delivery of The Synergist, designate your home address as “preferred” on your profile. Update your address now.
On May 19, an elementary school teacher in Marin County, California, began feeling congested and fatigued. Attributing her symptoms to allergies, she continued to work although her school district’s protocols for COVID-19 specified that staff who weren’t feeling well should stay home. Over the next two days, the teacher occasionally removed her mask to read to her students—another violation of protocols, though one that must have seemed minor. She was also unvaccinated, but at the time, vaccination wasn’t required.
With her symptoms worsening to include fever, headache, and cough, the teacher sought a COVID-19 test on May 21. She notified the school of her positive result on May 23. That day, additional cases of COVID-19 were reported among school staff, students, parents, and siblings. Eventually, according to a CDC report, 27 cases of COVID-19 were traced to the teacher. Of her 24 students, all of whom were too young to be vaccinated, 12 were infected, and six exhibited symptoms of COVID-19. CDC noted that the students’ risk “correlated with seating proximity to the teacher.”
The story is a microcosm of the challenges facing schools this autumn as tens of millions of children return to classrooms following a year of mostly remote learning. Schools finalized their reopening plans during the summer, when COVID-19 cases in the United States were bottoming out. By the time classrooms opened in August, case levels were soaring, driven by the highly transmissible delta variant of SARS-CoV-2. Without an approved vaccine for children under 12, elementary schools faced the challenge of keeping students healthy without the most effective defense against the spread of COVID-19.
Protecting Students, Teachers, and Staff
Moderated by Maria Godoy, a health and safety correspondent and senior editor for NPR News, The Synergist’s “Healthy Schools Town Hall Webinar” addresses the challenges schools face during the COVID-19 pandemic. The recorded webinar is freely accessible online.
A Synergist Webinar held Sept. 13 brought together a panel of experts from diverse professional backgrounds to discuss practical measures schools can take to maintain a safe environment for students, teachers, and staff. A key theme of the webinar was that each school’s approach must be tailored to individual facilities.
“Every school is built differently,” said Carol Vance, a member of the board of directors for the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology. “The ventilation is different, but even the size of the classrooms is different.” Physical distancing is harder to achieve in smaller classrooms, Vance noted, and the circulation of outdoor air may be impossible in older buildings with windows that don’t open.
Alex LeBeau, vice chair of AIHA’s Indoor Environmental Quality Committee and an industrial hygienist who has consulted for school districts, observed that many school administrators don’t understand the complexities of ventilation, the primary control for preventing the spread of COVID-19.
“It’s important to understand there is no one-size-fits-all model for this,” LeBeau said. “Different buildings are built differently. One building may be 50 years old, another building may be five years old. You can’t use the same way to address each of those buildings; you have to do that individually.”
Differences in climate can also affect approaches to ventilation, LeBeau said. CDC’s recommendation to maximize outdoor air may not be achievable in an area like Florida, where high humidity can overtax an HVAC system. “It’s all about making sure [schools] understand how the efficiencies in their facilities can be maximized for reducing risk.”
“This is the time to get intimately acquainted with your HVAC system in every school, in every district,” said Tracy Enger, who has spent her 25-year career at EPA helping schools improve indoor air quality. Enger recommended that schools refer to EPA’s tools for schools and guidance from ASHRAE (PDF) and AIHA (PDF) for suggestions on how to improve ventilation in school buildings and bring their facility staff together to determine which recommendations are appropriate for their buildings. Some schools will have staff on hand who can make these decisions, but others will need outside help.
“That’s where our industrial hygienists are going to be so useful in this process, because they can help school districts figure out how to address this not just from an immediate facility engineering point but also from a health standpoint,” Enger said.
LeBeau added that facility staff may lack the holistic view of a building necessary to properly adjust an HVAC system. Pressure differentials between rooms can complicate efforts to maximize HVAC efficiencies; staff may not realize that air is pulling into one classroom from another. “You may be keeping a door open thinking it’s the proper thing to do, but you come to find out you’re actually creating more problems,” LeBeau said.
Enger mentioned deferred maintenance, especially of HVAC systems, as a major problem in many schools. She implored schools to look beyond the current crisis and set the stage for long-term improvements that will pay dividends beyond the pandemic.
“This is our moment to do this,” Enger said.
A LARGER PROBLEM The webinar panelists agreed that differences in the quality of school buildings across the country point to a larger problem of inadequate funding for many districts.
“COVID put a national spotlight on the problematic conditions of our schools,” said Ally Talcott, executive director of [Re]Build America’s School Infrastructure Coalition (BASIC), a group of associations that support federal funding to help underserved public school districts. The problem goes beyond ventilation, Talcott said. “It’s leaky roofs. It’s lead in the water. It’s the lack of outdoor spaces for kids to play in and have social and emotional learning.”
According to the 2021 State of Our Schools report, which BASIC supported, funding for schools to conduct needed maintenance falls short by an estimated $85 million annually. The report points to research from Public Health Reports, Phi Delta Kappan—The Professional Journal for Educators, and other sources that indicates the quality of school facilities affects students’ ability to learn.
Enger agreed that COVID has “ripped the veil off” inadequacies in access to both education and healthcare. “We are seeing where we need to get our act together,” Enger said.
The panelists also agreed that encouraging schools to adopt a proactive approach to indoor air quality will pay dividends in the long run.
“Usually when I deal with school districts, they are reactive scenarios,” LeBeau said. “What I’d like to do is be a proactive source for [school staff]. We’re not there to hinder them, we’re not there to make them do something that they don’t want to do. We’re giving them the best science to move them forward so we can work together in unison and give these facilities the best environment. Working together will help us get ahead of some of these maintenance issues we continually come across.”
Ed Rutkowski is editor-in-chief of The Synergist.
Send feedback to The Synergist.
Are you an OEHS professional who has done a baseline risk assessment of a school's ventilation and filtration systems?
If so, we want to hear from you! Please tells us what kind of assessment you’ve performed.
Submit Form
21st Century School Fund: “2021 State of Our Schools: America’s PK-12 Public School Facilities” (2021).
CDC: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, “Outbreak Associated with SARS-CoV-2 B.1.617.2 (Delta) Variant in an Elementary School—Marin County, California, May–June 2021” (August 2021).
Synergist Webinars: “Health Schools Town Hall Webinar” (September 2021).