As chief operating officer of the District of Columbia’s largest charter school network, Dane Anderson is racing to clean the air in time for late August, when some students are expected to come back to a starkly different environment.
“We want the interior of our buildings to be essentially on lockdown related to virus,” Anderson says of KIPP DC, a publicly funded and privately operated network of seven campuses with 1,200 employees and 7,000 students.
A majority of those students live in neighborhoods that have high concentrations of black, low-income residents — swaths of the city with the greatest number of coronavirus deaths as well as the highest asthma rates, according to the nonprofit DC Asthma Coalition. Nationally, African Americans have suffered disproportionately from the virus.
As Americans contemplate returning to schools, offices and other indoor spaces they fled under threat of the deadly virus this spring, building managers like Anderson are figuring out how to reopen safely and prevent infection. They are focused on spaces where the virus can spread, from workspaces to bathrooms to elevators and heating, ventilation and cooling systems — and balancing the cost and practicality of changes.
“Building owners and operators are looking at what they can do to make their buildings safer. It’s not just a real risk, it’s a psychological risk,” said William Bahnfleth, an expert on indoor air at Pennsylvania State University and chair of the epidemic task force at ASHRAE, a global expert body on the management of building systems. “People aren’t going to be inclined to go back into buildings if they’re concerned about how safe they are.”
When it comes to schools and office buildings, wearing face masks and cleaning surfaces are not enough, experts say. They are recommending a menu of additional measures, many of which call for different ways of circulating and filtering the air.
But these steps are often expensive, rarely mandatory, and generally require help from professional engineers. And they can run counter to modern building design, which aims to seal the so-called building envelope to reduce heating and cooling costs. In the time of coronavirus, the new goal is to bring in more fresh air.
“Across the nation, I’m really concerned about K through 12 schools and universities not being prepared for the fall, when students and staff and teachers come back,” says Richard Corsi, dean of the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science at Portland State University, and an air quality expert.
Corsi says the steps being…