Denver schools to get ventilation upgrades to help stem spread of coronavirus

Angel Trigueros-Martinez pokes his head from the back of the line as students wait to enter the building on the first day of school at McGlone Academy on Wednesday. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

In an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus, the heating, ventilation, and cooling systems in Denver schools will be upgraded before students return to class next month.

The school board on Thursday unanimously approved $4.9 million in HVAC upgrades. The district will contract with seven companies to complete the work, which will include assessing HVAC systems at more than 150 school buildings, making necessary repairs and upgrades, cleaning the equipment, and upgrading air filters.

“It’s one of the strongest things we can do within the schools in terms of helping the children and the staff,” said Michael O’Keeffe, the district’s deputy chief of operations.

Research shows COVID-19 is largely transmitted through contact with droplets from coughs and sneezes. But scientists are also seeing some evidence that the virus can linger in the air in crowded, indoor spaces.

The federal Centers for Disease Control recommends employers increase the ratings of air filters in their buildings to MERV 13. MERV ratings measure a filter’s ability to capture particles. The standard for air filters in Denver schools is currently MERV 8. The district plans to upgrade school filters to MERV 11 or 13, depending on what each school’s HVAC system can handle.

Denver Public Schools announced late last month that it plans to reopen its schools to in-person learning this fall. Denver moved all learning online in March to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Families can opt to continue online learning or send their children back to school in person. School is set to begin again on Aug. 17.

Superintendent Susana Cordova told the school board she’s gotten lots of emails from parents asking specifically whether the district plans to upgrade its HVAC systems. 

The $4.9 million upgrade does not include installing air conditioning in the more than 50 Denver schools that still don’t have it. It also won’t pay for HVAC upgrades for Denver charter schools that are not housed in district-owned buildings. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run, and some are located in private facilities.

It’s likely the district will be able to use federal coronavirus relief funds to pay for the HVAC upgrades, officials said, though they noted conflicting guidance on how the funds can be used. If the district can’t use federal aid, officials said it will use leftover funds from a 2016 voter-approved tax increase earmarked for school construction and renovation.

Though the impetus for the upgrades was to better protect students and staff from contracting the coronavirus, district officials noted the work will have long-term benefits, as well, including that school heating systems will function better in the winter.

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