ROXBURY, NJ – A member of the Roxbury school board is concerned the district is reopening schools next week without having solid data about the adequacy of ventilation in the buildings, particularly Roxbury High School.
The board member, Dan Masi, brought up the ventilation matter at the board’s Tuesday meeting. Similar concerns have been expressed by fellow board member Heather Champagne and board President Carol Scheneck.
“As you know, initially there was an air quality report that was presented to the board,” Masi said. “It was said that this report shows that we’re good. I looked through the report … I had some concerns.”
Masi, who has several science master’s degrees, was told the consultant that wrote the air quality report reviewed his inquiries but didn't answer all of them. “Some of my concerns were addressed and some of them not,” he said. “So, I think I still have some questions.”
'Haven't Seen Any Data'
Masi said his main concern relates to the lack of data dealing with the adequacy of ventilation at the schools. He's particularly interested in the high school, which has many classrooms lacking windows that can be opened to augment the air flow from the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system.
“The … report, just on the high school, really didn’t demonstrate anything about the ventilation,” Masi said, noting the document mainly focused on the HVAC’s ability to deal with carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. “I haven’t seen any data that shows we understand the ventilation both in our high school and the other six schools.”
In response, Roxbury Schools Business Administrator Joseph Mondanaro said the only way to really answer Masi’s question about air exchange capability would be to hire an engineer. “It would be extremely costly, but we’re looking at it,” he said.
“I’m assuming that’s not going to happen before the start of school,” said Masi. “I’m a little bit uncomfortable not knowing ... We’re supposed to ensure adequate air ventilation, and I don’t get the sense that we really know what our current ventilation is.”
UV Rays and Bipolar Ions
Roxbury’s schools were closed in mid-March as the COVID-19 pandemic reached New Jersey. They will reopen, on a limited basis, Sept. 8, and the district has assured the state that it can provide adequate ventilation, a big factor in limiting the indoor spread of viruses, according to health experts.
The district’s current plan to bolster ventilation entails opening classroom doors and windows when possible along with bypassing HVAC control systems "so that our dampers can be opened at 100 percent when needed,” Mondanaro told the board.
In an email, Mondanaro said the district has been "in touch with" several engineering companies that do ventilation studies. "The testing will not happen prior to school, but I'm confident that our systems are operating properly," he said.
The business administrator said the high school's rooftop HVAC units are only seven years old. "However, there is a perception that the high school has poor airflow/air quality due to the lack of windows," he said. "Prior to COVID, we did not see any reason to test for airflow. There has not been an unusual number of student or staff absences where air quality, airflow or lack of ventilation was to blame."
He said the district recently bought 120 Atmos-Clear air purifiers that will be installed in all windowless classrooms at the high school. These $599 units draw in air and cleanse it with ultraviolet radiation.
Masi said his calculations show that the air purifiers are only capable of filtering an average classroom's air once every four hours.
"They're pretty small units," he said. "Again, just concerns that ... the numbers not being looked at in a big-picture sense. I just want to point out to other people on the board that I personally have some questions. I don’t believe our system is bad. I just don’t know that we have all the data."
When it comes to COVID-19, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommends HVAC filters with a minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) of at least 13, Roxbury High School’s filters are MERV 8.
The ASHRAE says a typical MERV 8 filter is only about 20 percent efficient at capturing particles bearing COVID-19 while a typical MERV 14 filter is at least 90 percent efficient at capturing the same particles.
The high school’s HVAC system is designed for MERV 7 filters, according to Mondanaro. “Generally, increasing filter efficiency leads to increased pressure drop which can lead to reduced air flow through the HVAC system, more energy use for the fan to compensate for the increased resistance, or both,” says the ASHRAE website. “If a MERV 13 filter cannot be accommodated in the system, then use the highest MERV rating you can.”
Mondanaro said the HVAC's filtration is being augmented by38 iWave-C ionization generators that have been installed in the HVAC air handler units. These $566 devices kill viruses using positive and negative ions.
He noted that all the schools' HVAC filters were replaced in March and again recently.
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