How do you improve air quality in aging Memphis school buildings as students return? Shelby County Schools looks at its options.

Air conditioning ventilation ducts and light in a building.
Shelby County Schools is tentatively reopening buildings in January and parents have expressed concern about air quality. (mikroman6 / Getty Images)

As Shelby County Schools considers bringing students back into schools in January, a glaring problem still faces the district: How to make sure their aging buildings don’t contribute to spreading COVID-19 to students and teachers.

National public health officials have encouraged businesses and schools to improve their air systems to reduce the chances of infection through the air.

Since March, the Memphis district has completed 3,350 repairs on heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in their nearly 150 buildings. They’ve also modified the systems to bring more fresh air into buildings more often, in accordance with recommendations from national organizations for reopening schools. The district’s air filters are more effective than the ones in most school systems, but the filters still fall short of guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But upgrading air filters in the district’s aging infrastructure makes even simple modifications costly. Shelby County Schools already has a backlog of about $500 million in maintenance costs, including many HVAC systems. To save money, the district is looking at another option, but there’s little research on how well it works. 

Earlier this month, Superintendent Joris Ray asked the state for $26 million to purchase an air cleaner called needlepoint bipolar ionization. The device sends out positive and negative ions into a room that causes extremely small airborne bacteria and fungus to attach to each other and form larger clumps. Those clumps are then large enough for an air filter to block them from re-entering the room. That means the district would not have to make costly repairs on its existing HVAC systems to handle more effective filters.

Shelby County Schools is tentatively reopening buildings in January. Confidence in building safety and cleanliness will likely play a part in parents’ decisions on whether to send their children to classrooms or keep them in virtual school. Parents and teachers have until the end of the week to decide.

Superintendent Joris Ray pops in on a virtual class video at Highland Oaks Middle School, where children of teachers were allowed to join their online classes while their parents worked at the building. The district is tentatively planning for buildings to reopen to more students in January. (Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat)

Most cases of COVID-19 are spread through close contact with an infected person. That’s why masks and social distancing are the primary defenses. But in some cases, it can spread through the air when an infected person is in an enclosed space with others for hours at a time where there is poor ventilation, according to the CDC. 

Classrooms, especially in districts with many old buildings like Shelby County Schools, are likely to have all those conditions. 

“A building that doesn’t have adequate ventilation or filtration, over time, if you have an infected individual in the space, there’s likely to be spread even if other positive steps are being taken,” said Corey Metzger, the Iowa-based engineer leading school coronavirus guidance for the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, or ASHRAE.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, school buildings nationwide were known to have poor air systems. A recent federal report found at least half the schools in 41% of school districts nationwide need to update or replace their HVAC systems. That represents about 36,000 schools.

“We have to assume we’re already starting off at a bad air quality and now we’re introducing a virus that will make it worse,” said David Weekley, a Knoxville-based industrial hygienist who has advised Tennessee school districts on air systems but mainly works with hospitals.

Shelby County Schools has not shared what other steps it would take if state funding for the new air cleaning system doesn’t come through. Denver Public Schools, which has about as many students and buildings as Shelby County Schools, spent $4.9 million for higher grade filters in buildings. The average building age is about 45 years old, which is similar to Shelby County Schools. The Memphis district did not provide an estimate of how much higher grade filters would cost, but said needlepoint bipolar ionization was the most cost-effective option. 

But the national engineering group guiding Shelby County Schools is hesitant to support needlepoint bipolar ionization.

“It certainly accomplishes some of the things that they claim. But there are not independent tests that have been documented,” Metzger said.

Global Plasma Solutions, the company the district would buy the device from, said its laboratory results showed needlepoint bipolar ionization can reduce the presence of COVID-19 found on surfaces by 99.4%. A company spokesperson did not return a request for comment. The district’s top official overseeing facilities, Genard Phillips, was unavailable for an interview.

The engineering group’s advice neither endorses nor rejects the new technology. But it does recommend districts seek research outside the companies selling it. When Chalkbeat asked what research the district was leaning on, Shelby County Schools officials provided a Global Plasma Solutions press release and a Business Insider article about the technology gaining popularity — but no independent research. 

In a statement, the district said it favors the technology because installing it would not require further work on its existing HVAC systems and would be less expensive. 

“As the largest district in the state, if funding is available, Shelby County Schools is willing and prepared to be pioneers in leveraging this technology if it any way helps mitigate safety risks in our buildings and alleviates any fears for our educators and families,” said Jerica Phillips, a district spokeswoman.

The district plans to bring back elementary school students and students with disabilities on Jan. 4 and the rest of students about two weeks later. (Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat)

Parent Kallee Glover said air quality in schools was especially important to her as she considered which schooling option she would choose for the rest of the academic year. Her son, a ninth grader at Ridgeway High School, has asthma.

“He is predisposed to anything foreign in his respiratory system. He would not do well,” she said. Though she’s unhappy with how virtual school has rolled out these past two months since the district began the year all online, she said it was a “no-brainer” to keep him at home. 

She said any solution the district seeks should be “tried, true, and tested.” 

“Trying out things on the lives of our students and using them as lab rats to see if it works, that’s not enough,” she said.

Few districts have sought to improve their ventilation systems, so any effort makes Shelby County Schools stand out, said Weekley, the industrial hygienist. 

But surrounding suburban districts may not have to make improvements because they have new facilities and fewer HVAC problems. For example, Lakeland Superintendent Ted Horrell said the two-school district replaced its oldest HVAC system in 2016 and built a new school in 2017. The district welcomed its 1,450 students back to buildings Aug. 10 and has had one case of COVID-19 among staff and none among students, he said.

“We reviewed the CDC and [state education department] recommendations on ventilation, but did not feel the need to update our air circulation other than encouraging teachers to keep doors open more than usual,” Horrell said in an email. 

Arlington Community Schools adjusted its schedule of fresh air intake through its air systems similar to Shelby County Schools, but also changed its air filters to a higher grade that catches more particles, which cost $6,000 for its four schools, a spokesperson said. 

Six weeks before the district had planned for an August reopening, Ray said he did not have reason to be concerned about building ventilation in schools. But earlier this month, Ray’s letter to Gov. Bill Lee requesting funding was more urgent. 

He said the improvements would “minimize the risk of COVID-19 and other airborne virus transmissions through our ventilation systems,” in the letter dated Oct. 2. “With our return to school inevitably aligning to flu and cold season, we must acknowledge that we will be fighting the battle against germs on many fronts.”

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