Three air conditioners

As school districts around the country begin reopening, Stephen Ashkin, president of The Ashkin Group, says that one "missing link" in the transmission of COVID-19 is being overlooked: HVAC systems in individual school buildings.

"Good ventilation is crucial to reducing the transmission of the virus,” says Ashkin in a press release. "Scientific studies have found [that] people are over 18 times more likely to contract the virus indoors than outdoors, illustrating the importance of ventilation."

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently reported that "41 percent of [school] districts need to update or replace heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems."

Antiquated HVAC systems are often found in older schools and in more impoverished neighborhoods. However, Ashkin says even affluent districts can have individual school buildings with ventilation problems as well.

"Further, in some schools, portions of buildings may have good ventilation while other sections may not due to additions and renovations," he says. "This means districts need to evaluate each individual school in the district."

This is especially true in regions of the country with extreme weather conditions. For example, extreme summer and winter temperatures may eliminate simple mitigation strategies such as allowing some class time to take place outdoors, or even opening windows and doors.

As to rectifying this situation, in many cases, the best option is to replace older HVAC systems entirely. Another option, found on newer HVAC systems, is to adjust them so that more fresh air is mixed with treated air.

Additionally, advanced air filtering systems have been developed to trap and prevent COVID pathogens from being distributed through HVAC systems.

Ashkin adds that along with addressing this "missing link" in preventing the spread of the infection, communities should consider these additional issues as they prepare to reopen individual schools:

- Whether the virus is increasing or decreasing in the community

- Availability of testing and contact tracing

- Prevalence of multi-generational households

- Physical distancing strategies

- Policies on wearing face coverings

- Custodial training to ensure that schools are being properly cleaned and disinfected.

“In our efforts to safely reopen our schools and ensure the health of teachers, staff, and custodial workers, we cannot forget the needs of the school buildings themselves," says Ashkin.