Concerning Indoor Air Quality at Pittsford Central Schools
TL;DR — Carbon dioxide ( CO2 ) is a proxy for indoor air quality ( IAQ ) and the fresh air exchange rate of an indoor space. Barker Road Middle School (BRMS) CO2 levels are concerning, and have persisted since notifying administration on November 18, 2021. Implications include increased risk for airborne infections such as SARS-CoV-2, RSV, and influenza. Decreased cognitive function, headaches, and other health impacts can also result. SARS-CoV-2 is an airborne transmitted infection, hanging in the air for hours. School policies do not adequately reflect the more current understanding that SARS-CoV2 is transmitted via aerosols. Supplemental air filtration should be used to achieve six effective air changes per hour ( eACH ) when adequate fresh air cannot be supplied. Students and staff need the community to advocate for their safety. The peak recorded CO2 level in this school year of 2095ppm was recorded today.
In late August 2021, we were all getting ready to return our children to in-person school, and the Delta variant had been raging all summer. My under 12 year old child would be returning to a more crowded classroom ( 25 vs 16), with more relaxed procedures, and ineligible for the vaccine.
After watching this panel discussion and then this presentation by Dr. Kimberly Prather, Ph.D., Director of the National Science Foundation Center for Aerosol Impacts on Chemistry of the Environment, I asked the Park Road Elementary (PRE) principal three questions:
- What is the plan for lunch?
- What is the MERV rating of air filtration being used?
- Are free standing HEPA filters or a Cosi-Rosenthal Box being used in classrooms?
I learned that lunch would no longer be kept within the classroom as we had done with the less virulent strain of SARS-CoV-2. The entire school population would now eat in three adjacent areas, obviously unmasked when eating, unable to contact trace, with overlap, and therefore no way to change out the air between groups. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) guidance for the reopening of schools says: “Pre- and post-occupancy purge cycles are recommended to flush the building with clean air.” The principal helped us to have our child dismissed daily at lunch to eat outdoors with an adult that “picks them up”. This has gone smoothly all year with the apprected help of staff at the school.
I was also told there would be no additional free standing system and provided a document which you can read here from Jeffrey Beardsley ( Jeffrey_Beardsley@pittsford.monroe.edu 585–267–1090 ), the Director of Operations, Maintenance & Security. I did not feel this document was transparent, and significantly raised my suspicion that in fact, air quality issues might be present. It reads like hiding behind bureaucracy, meeting a minimum, and perhaps written with the approval of legal council. Why not just answer my question and say what filters are being used instead of a fictitious MERV C or an inapplicable MERV-A? MERV-A is used in an optional step to “condition” electret filters before testing. Details of that start on page 50 of the ASHRAE 52.2 standard. Furthermore, the ASHRAE says in the same reopening schools document, “Use of at least MERV-13 rated filters is recommended if it does not adversely impact system operation. If MERV-13 filters cannot be used, including when there is no mechanical ventilation of a space, portable HEPA air cleaners in occupied spaces may be considered.”
Looking back to Dr. Prather’s presenation, I felt the only way to know if IAQ was as good as Mr. Beardsley’s document suggests, was to have my kids measure CO2 at school.
I decided to purchase an Aranet4, the same one Dr. Prather uses in her work so that data collected would be less likely to be discredited. The Aranet4 contains a nondispersive infrared ( NDIR ) sensor made in Switzerland. The size is perfect, and the battery lasts four years. I quickly found out I was not alone using this device.
I connected with Lizzie Rothwell who is doing similar parent driven work in the Philadelphia schools and this amazing site. She graciously provided me with a .stl file of a case for the Aranet4 that looks like a Minecraft villager. She later went on to be featured in the New York Times article, “The Hot New Back-to-School Accessory? An Air Quality Monitor”
Using the Nextdoor app, I connnected with and paid a RIT engineering student to make the print, and my wife painted it. I now had a covert CO2 monitor I could strap to my kids’ backpacks. Connecting with all these people trying to help others has been a bright spot in the journey through this pandemic.
Placing context around the measurements, outdoor fresh air has a concentration of 400 parts per million ( ppm ). Roughly every 400ppm over 400ppm equals an additional 1% rebreathed air. An example of using this is, assume you are in a space with 1600ppm. 1600–400 = 1200. 1200 / 400 = 3% rebreathed air. Over the course of 33 breaths, the air volume in one of them was in someone else’s lungs. In France, the recommendation is when CO2 levels exceed 800ppm, open the windows, and above 1000ppm, evacuate!
I collected baseline data at both schools between September 13 and 23, 2021. We had great weather and the schools were doing a great job of keeping windows open. Some readings were really elevated, but I did not know how the district would react to the device, and wanted to gather data when colder weather came so I stayed quiet. Another point about being taken seriously is at that time, SARS-CoV-2 among our student population was incredibly low. The community vaccination rate on the first day of school was 92.3% for those 12 and older in the 14534 zip code. Communication about reopening was incredibly confident that we were “going back to normal”, resting on the outcome of an incredibly successful prior school year, before the Delta and Omicron variants.
When Thornell Road Elementary School had an outbreak involving >8% of the school population, I thought perhaps conditions might have worsened and would be taken seriously. We started collecting data again on November 15–17, 2021 at PRE. On the evening of November 16 at the school board meeting, Superintendent Michael Pero had this to say about additional air filtration, and the status of HVAC systems: “We also received questions about purchasing at Thornell Road, additional ventilators, and so we reached out to our HVAC expert, in the district, and his reply is that the state only recommends that you may install portable air cleaners, in areas without proper ventilation. The state is somewhat neutral on the use of purifiers however, specifically states the use of portable filtration devices do not decrease the need for mask wearing, physical distancing, sanitation practices, or adequate ventilation. The best means of air purification and COVID protections are air handling units that move the required amount of air and turn over rate. All of our Pittsford systems, including Thornell Road have been designed and approved by NYSED facilities to exceed all the parameters, so what we have is as far as our air turn over, exceeds the requirement. The portable devices are limited in the amount of air they filter per hour, they might even reduce, but not eliminate, particles, viruses, or microbes in the air. They add maintenance and possible hazards with extension cords, trip hazards, they’re costly, they‘re noisy, and if not maintained, contribute to additional particles that outweight any benefit achieved over the current ventilation practices currently being used by the district. Your buildings HVA(C) systems provide ventilation that meet and exceeds CDC and (NY)SED recommendations, with majority exceeding both. So at this point, we are, from the begining we have leaned on our experts, we do have a HVAC expert, who is also a community member”
The data we colleted at BRMS on November 18 had me really concerned and we decided to notify the principal. The decision to do this was difficult. Friends in the community expressed concern for an unknown cost to our family for something they felt would likely result in no change. I moved forward, staying with the data, and withholding opinions. I sent this email on November 18, 2021 to the Barker Road Middle school principal, Sarah Jacob.
There is something wrong with the HVAC equipment that services room (redacted) and facilities should inspect it as soon as possible. CO2 levels reached 1639ppm while my (redacted) was in that room today. Levels remained in excess of 1400ppm for over an hour. Levels should not exceed 700–800ppm and definitely not beyond 1000ppm. At approximately 1600ppm, three percent of the air those in the room are breathing was in someone else’s lungs. It’s like breathing all the air someone else exhales one in every 33 breaths which would likely occur about every 2 1/3 minutes. This is a change from earlier in the year, likely when windows were open. I can certainly provide more information, research, etc, but far more important was letting you know ASAP.
Ms. Jacob followed up within a half hour of my email saying she is getting facilities involved immediately, and asked how I had gathered the data
I replied after gathering two more days of data:
I collected the information by attaching to the outside of (redacted) backpack a nondispersive infrared sensor ( NDIR ) made in Switzerland. This is the monitor recommended by many scientists including the director of the National Science Foundation Center for Aerosol Impacts on Chemistry and the Environment. I have attached a Microsoft Excel file containing the data collected over the last three school days with graphs.
This link is to a calculator from the Harvard School for Public Health. This tool supports the Harvard Healthy Building program’s “5-step Guide to Checking Ventilation Rates in Classrooms.” Entering a few measurements will let you estimate conditions at BRMS. You can click on “File”, then “Make a copy”, so that you can edit it, and see the impact on the expected CO2 ppm at a given air changes per hour ( ACH ). Scientists in multiple disciplines are calling for 5–6 ACH to mitigate SARS-CoV-2.
I hope this is helpful.
Ms. Jacob has done all the correct steps with this issue. She immediately took action to have equipment checked. She has since persisted in getting others in the district who are responsible for these systems to communicate when they would not. She wisely involved Darrin Kenney (firstname.lastname@example.org), Assistant Superintendent of Finance & Support Services when no one else was saying anything. I heard from Ms. Jacob several times that this issue is being addressed, then on December 2, 2021, Ms. Jacob added, “We have taken a multifaceted approach including the utilization of outside evaluators.”
I pursued further clarification that same day:
“Thank you for letting me know. I recognize that you have so much on your plate, and still took the time to communicate that things are in motion. The convergence of public health with engineering does take several subject matter experts and it is great to hear outside help is being used. I appreciate the moving effort of bringing them together to make students and staff safe. I am certainly willing to provide peer reviewed research and information I have gathered on these topics as the work continues. Many parents are eager to help. I am curious what types of experts are being used — scientists (PhD), engineers (PE), ect.”
No one from the school district said anything further.
On December 10, 2021 I wrote another email:
“Yesterday’s CO2 measurements at BRMS included sustained all time highs that ascended to the peak of 1889ppm. Beyond health concerns, research published this September showed levels “above 900 ppm were associated with significantly lower test scores” when doing addition and subtraction.”
Mr Kenney replied that same day
“I apologize in advance if I am repeating what Principal Jacob may have already communicated to you. However, I wanted to also convey that we continue to address this issue with a team of various individuals certified in environmental mechanical engineering, environmental hygiene and environmental testing to name a few. We continue to develop, employ and test various strategies to infuse more fresh air and increase exhaust air, while maintaining temperatures. Two challenges to the testing of measures taken are the current supply chain shortage making the obtaining of new equipment or repair parts and the extreme variability we have been experiencing with weather. For example, testing a remediation measure on a 57 degree will not offer results that are useful in evaluating the success of the measure if the last test was performed on a 32 degree day. Basically preserving the integrity of the data we are comparing “apples to apples” will better assure we are making correctly informed decisions. Thank you for your patience.”
On December 24, 2021, having not heard anything else from the district, I emailed Mr. Kenney again:
I have not observed acceptable improvement from the data I continue to gather. I feel compelled to inform the community. It is important to me to build trust, be fair, and above all, treat others as I would want to be. Do you have anything else you would like people to know about this situation? If you would like the opportunity to transparently inform the community first, I would completely respect that assuming it would occur soon.
I have heard nothing and have not seen any relevent press releases.
This journey started with looking out for the safety of our children. A school does not exist if parents do not feel safe sending their kids. There are amazing staff in PCSD who care deeply for my children. We as a community need to care for the staff too. If staff cannot safely work, we do not have a school.
I hope with all this information — you are thinking about what should be done. I have ideas, but in reality, I am not an expert. I am not employed to handle this, and it is not my responsibility. I hope others in the community will move this forward because my voice alone is not enough. I have three points of consideration for moving forward
- Pressure the district to achieve an effective six air changes per hour in all buildings. This graphic provided by Dr. Richard Corsi, Dean of Engineering at UC Davis explains this well.
2. Empower staff with measurement devices. Educators routinely use testing to inform instruction. Why not measure the air to inform intervention? Some say you can’t improve what you don’t measure. Staff have the power to improve CO2 and particulate matter in their classrooms and throughout the building. Right now they don’t know what is in their environment. The addition of CO2 and PM 2.5 monitors that are visible to staff would allow this.
3. Immediately add stand alone air filtration. Based on Mr. Kenney’s email, when he discussed supply chain issues, it does not sound like the district can achieve eACH 6 soon. The purchase of HEPA filters, or even doing a community build of Corsi-Rosenthol boxes could get classrooms to that level quickly. In a conversation I had with Dr. Prather, she shared that “Filtration has turned to be great in every place I have recommended it-including a school district with over 100,000 kids — not a single large outbreak.”
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This is an excellent video relevent to schools. Do not discount it just because it is based in California and we are currently experiencing a frigid upstate NY winter. They cover a lot of topics such as clean air delivery rate (CADR ), comparison of filters, and is overall an excellent production.
Below are great examples of parent and student builds of Corsi-Rosenthal boxes.
This is an excellent place to stop but I did not address the inaccurate information provided to Mr. Pero for his comments from the November 16, 2021 school board meeting.
“We also received questions about purchasing at Thornell Road, additional ventilators, and so we reached out to our HVAC expert, in the district, and his reply is that the state only recommends that you may install portable air cleaners, in areas without proper ventilation.” —“The best means of air purification and COVID protections are air handling units that move the required amount of air and turn over rate. All of our Pittsford systems, including Thornell Road have been designed and approved by NYSED facilities to exceed all the parameters, so what we have is as far as our air turn over, exceeds the requirement.”
The data I have collected calls proper ventilation into question and if these systems are actually performing as designed. If you use Harvard Healthy Buildings ACH-CO2 Tool and the data I have collected it seems highly unlikely that proper ventilation is being achieved. Under assumption of 23 middle school students in a 1000 square foot classroom with 10 foot ceilings and a teacher, some classrooms might be achieving a single air change per hour.
“The portable devices are limited in the amount of air they filter per hour”
We know what the clean air delivery rate ( CADR ) of these devices are, how big the space is, and can easily calculate how many are needed.
“They add maintenance”
“Possible hazards with extension cords, trip hazards”
Thoughtful people can prevent this.
A Corsi-Rosenthol box can be constructed for less than $80.
They operate under 51 decibels at 6 feet which is about the same as a refrigerator. I sleep with one in the room. If the fan points upward, and is above the level of the ears of seated students, the noise would be further reduced.
“if not maintained, contribute to additional particles that outweight any benefit achieved over the current ventilation practices currently being used by the district”
Why would they not be maintained? A “dirty” filter actually removes more particles and the real issue is air flow restriction.
My children have continued to collect data at both BRMS and PRE. Below are links to both data sets.
The data from PRE has the challenge of only being one room. Most recent data collected on January 3, 2022 showed a peak of 1011ppm and stayed at safe levels below this most of the day. My child reports windows are open, and the door as well when noise levels allow. This surely results in a better classroom environment. Kudos to this awesome teacher for following the best guidance.
BRMS CO2 levels are consistently elevated in many classrooms. My child reports many of the teachers are keeping windows open and doing the best they can. They deserve our support!
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