Out on the flat, rock-carpeted roof of the West Somerville Neighborhood School, consultant Scott LeClair steps up to an air handler unit as big as a semi-trailer.
He opens a metal panel and pulls out a filter shaped like a pizza box.
"This unit’s actually sending the air into the building," he explains. "We’re looking to see what types of filters they have and what level they can filter to," so the filters can be upgraded if possible.
"We’re also looking at how much air we can bring from the outside," adds LeClair, whose engineering firm, Fitzemeyer and Tocci, often works on health care buildings and so is familiar with fighting airborne microbes. "And we’re going to see if we can get that number higher, so that we can bring in more outdoor air, and exchange the air in the building more frequently."
His visit, which also includes checks of the airflow in classrooms and bathrooms, is part of the intensive work under way to outfit the Somerville schools physically for pandemic times, from furniture that allows more distancing to possible outdoor classrooms.
"The goal," says Somerville, Mass., Mayor Joseph Curtatone, "is to establish an environment where we can safely educate the kids."
That means masks, social distancing, and hand-washing — and safer air. There’s growing evidence that the coronavirus can linger in the air, including several documented cases that linked poor ventilation to spread of the virus. The state is advising schools that while masks are the best defense against that, better ventilation can help too.
With a full gamut of risk-reducing strategies in place, including good ventilation and filters, "you can significantly drive down risk to a level where you wouldn’t expect a case, if you have good compliance with all the strategies," says Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. He cites hospitals' success at stemming coronavirus infections as evidence.
Nationally, 90% of schools are under-ventilated, Allen says, and decades of research show that bad air flow harms student health and performance. Now, the pandemic is bringing new urgency to the school air issue.
One key, he says, is bringing in as much outdoor air as possible, so that viral particles don’t build up if someone is sick and shedding virus.
"Think about it in terms of dilution of contaminant in the indoor space," Allen says. "You either want to dilute it by bringing in more outdoor air, or clean that air to remove the particles. There’s two removal mechanisms: dilution or cleaning."
Remedies can be as simple as opening windows or using box fans — or holding class outdoors if possible. Indoors, he recommends portable air cleaners, and argues that manufacturers could likely produce enough for the country's schools.
In June, his Healthy Buildings program put out a 60-page report on how schools can reduce coronavirus risk, including ventilation guidelines.
The state hasn’t set specific school air standards for this pandemic period, says Rich Raiche, Somerville’s director of infrastructure and asset management.
"And that’s definitely a stressor for the people making the decisions," he says. "There is no uniform guidance on what an acceptable threshold is. So each district, each municipality, has to make their own determination on it."
As with many school decisions right now, he says, how good the ventilation has to be will ultimately be a judgement call after bringing in outside experts, elected officials and the public.
"So it’s hugely complicated, and everyone realizes that there’s a lot at stake on those decisions, and everyone feels that, "he says. "None of us are sleeping anymore."
Somerville's school committee chair, Carrie Normand, cites the copious time required for each district to make such determinations. "When you have every district doing this on their own," she says, "it is not a good use of resources across the state."
Ventilation efforts vary not just town by town but school by school, some of them brand new with state-of-the art systems and some of them antiques whose climate depends largely on windows and radiators.
At the Old Lincoln School on Route 9 in Brookline, parent volunteer Kristin Jones helps district director of operations Matthew Gillis inventory the huge windows that reach the ceiling. Nearby, a whiteboard headed "March 12" gives the poignant impression that in the empty school, time froze when the pandemic hit.
Gillis and Jones pause for just a moment to contemplate that surreal stoppage, then return to muscling the windows up and down to check their function. The district's plans for reopening are still in play, but the clear goal, Gillis says, is, "We all want to have a safe return, even though we can't eliminate all risk."
And nobody, he says, wants to reopen and then soon need to close back down again.
Joe Allen from Harvard recently told the Brookline school reopening task force that improving school air does involve costs.
"But there’s a much bigger expense from keeping our kids out of school," he said. "You cannot separate it from this equation. These costs are real. And this is all doable."
Many schools may not be able to reach ideal levels of ventilation, Allen says, but that shouldn’t stop them from doing what they can to make their air safer — like adding portable air purifiers — now, before students and staff may come back.
This segment aired on August 3, 2020.