Want to keep school children safe from COVID? Begin with indoor air, expert says

New Mexico doesn’t know which districts have COVID-safe ventilation systems, despite federal funding for them

By: - April 26, 2022 5:00 am

A technician works on an air handling and conditioning unit. (Photo by Mikael Vaisanen / Getty Images)

As New Mexico students went back to in-person classes in 2021, Nissa Patterson could see mothers struggling with how to keep their children safe there.

Patterson has been working in public health for the past 20 years and has a master’s degree in children and family public health. Through New Mexico State University, she works with schools to get kids outdoors more during the school day, like with outdoor classes, gardening and obesity prevention.

She kept wondering how to contribute to rational, calm, positive conversations about how to safely go back to school. So she created a group called Safe Back to School New Mexico, where mothers could talk about the issue and where she could highlight different voices in the scientific community.

“I really tried to ground the information in what data we had, because COVID has been very emotional, and sending kids back to school, and masks, and all these issues have been very emotional,” Patterson said.

Now there are about 100 parents in the group, Patterson said, including teachers.

“I think this group has been very good at going out into their respective spheres and advocating,” Patterson said. “A lot of them have been active in their schools.“

But most parents probably do not know whether their school district is doing to keep the amount of virus in the classroom to a minimum, Patterson said.

In interviews with state education officials, Source New Mexico has found that there is no systematic review of what schools are doing about indoor air quality and COVID-19, and no easy place for members of the public to find information about what their local schools are doing.

“The human beings in the schools right now are tired, and they’ve been doing a really good job,” Patterson said.

We really need to address this systematically from the top.

– Nissa Patterson

It’s up to each individual school district to make sure that they implement the indoor air quality requirements put out by the New Mexico Public Education Department, said Antonio Ortiz, PED’s finance and operations director, in an interview Monday.

“We don’t have the staff or capacity at PED to go out there and go verify every single building in doing that,” Ortiz said.

He said the nature of that lack of capacity is embedded in challenges with both staffing and the wide variety of HVAC systems in school buildings across the state.

“There’s over 850 school buildings in the state of New Mexico,” Ortiz said. “That’s a big task to be able to go into every building and see what they’re doing.”

The broader public should care about indoor air quality, Patterson said, because it is probably the biggest predictor of transmission within a classroom.

“If you’re rebreathing each other’s air, and somebody has COVID, or they have the common cold, you’re more likely to transmit it,” Patterson said. “The infrastructure of our schools has been so inadequate for so many years that this is an opportunity to improve the ventilation in our classrooms that we’ve needed for a long time.”

The number one thing that we can address to decrease transmission of COVID-19 in schools is making sure that air is as clean as we get it, Patterson said.

“It’s the health of our teachers, it’s the health of our children, kids with asthma,” Patterson said. “The health of our air really affects multiple layers of our health.”

Schools required to improve indoor air

In March 2020, the New Mexico Department of Health asked the New Mexico Public Education Department to inspect air systems at school sites across the state.

PED required all schools and districts to evaluate their heating and air conditioning systems and buy “the highest grade filter compatible with their system,” including, when possible, upgrading to a highly rated  filter — the MERV-13, which can trap small particles, including viruses, said PED spokesperson Judy Robinson.

Large buildings typically have old HVAC systems, which makes it hard to ventilate the classrooms within, Patterson said.

It’s easier to do good ventilation in a portable classroom than in a large traditional building, Patterson said, because permanent classrooms are “woefully underventilated.”

For those with air systems that don’t fit MERV-13 filters, PED required them to take steps to get more fresh air into the classroom, Robinson said.

In December 2020, September 2021 and January 2022, PED designated federal pandemic relief money totaling $11.9 million for districts and schools to buy portable air purifiers in classrooms with air systems that don’t fit the MERV-13 filters, Robinson said.

In total, New Mexico received more than $1.5 billion in pandemic aid from the federal government.

But in answers to questions from Source New Mexico, Robinson and Ortiz said PED does not collect any information about which districts and schools in New Mexico have installed MERV-13 filters, which districts and schools have not, what kind of filters districts and schools are using other than MERV-13s, and whether those filters are good enough to protect people from the coronavirus.

When asked for an example of a district or school in New Mexico that has deployed these kinds of portable systems, Robinson said PED does not keep track of those systems, either.

Instead, state officials count on written assurances from superintendents and school boards, who agreed in 2021 to follow COVID-safe practices, including requirements by PED to install the best possible filters in schools.

Source New Mexico on April 14 asked PED for all of those written assurances. That public records request was pending as of Monday afternoon.

A lot of parents in the Safe Back to School New Mexico group talk about asking their school principals about MERV-13 filters in school building’s central air systems, and portable HEPA filters in particularly congested classrooms, Patterson said. Other parents chime in to help with talking points, she said.

There’s a long history of public health agencies being underfunded and understaffed, Patterson said, which can lend to a crisis mentality and uncertainty about who is doing what.

“The underpinning of public health is you have to carefully and methodically plan out all aspects of response to a pandemic,” she said.

That should include getting support to teachers and administrators, getting them help with ventilation, and getting them more staff to deal with students’ mental health needs, Patterson said.

“We need systemic solutions to this huge stress burden put on our schools, emotionally,” Patterson said.

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.