Even with federal funding, U.S. schools still rely on slow, low-cost approaches

Despite having additional federal funding, U.S. schools said they could rely on low-cost strategies to improve ventilation to slow the spread of coronavirus, according to a survey released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

These measures include keeping outdoor activities, opening doors and windows and inspecting existing heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, the study said.

Only one-third of public schools reported taking expensive steps, such as replacing or upgrading their HVAC systems. Less than one in three said they used high-efficiency Particle Air (HEPA) filtration systems in classrooms and cafeterias.

Studies have shown that schools serving children from the poorest American communities are slightly more likely to replace or upgrade their HVAC systems than those serving those with moderate levels of poverty. Nearly half of the schools serving the poorest communities – and about half of the schools serving the richest communities – have replaced or upgraded their HVAC systems, compared to only one-third of middle-class schools. Even the poorest schools were more likely to inspect and verify their HVAC systems than those with moderate poverty.

The authors of the CDC report suggest that while schools in rich areas may already have the resources to upgrade their systems, schools in high-poverty areas may have more experience accessing and using federal funds for such purposes.

Thirty-five percent to 44 percent of school children in the poorest communities eat and use HEPA filtration systems in classrooms and high-risk areas, and 36 percent to 50 percent of schools in low-poverty communities use HEPA filters in those areas.

In contrast, only one in four or five community service providers with moderate poverty reported using HEPA filters in those areas.

The study was based on the results of a nationally representative sample of 420 K-12 public schools, using data collected between February 14 and March 27 from the National School Covid-19 Prevention Study. The sampling framework consists of public schools in 50 states and the District of Columbia; This is a web-based survey that is distributed to school administrators.

Only 26 percent of the schools surveyed in February and March responded, however. The percentage of students eligible for free or discounted meals was used to determine the poverty level of each school community.

The location was also related to the measures taken to improve ventilation: rural schools were less likely to use portable HEPA filtration systems than urban and suburban schools.

Urban schools, on the other hand, were less likely to open windows than rural, suburban or urban schools, probably due to noise and air pollution concerns (some windows are not open). City schools were less likely to use fans to increase air circulation when windows were open.

The author writes, “All schools may need additional efforts to ensure access and utilization of resources to successfully improve ventilation,” especially in rural areas and there is moderate poverty.

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