WILLISTON – Hot off another run to Home Depot, Williston Schools Facilities Manager Lyall Smith apologized for his slight tardiness and explained they are constructing a plexiglass enclosure around the front desk of Allen Brook School, the town’s pre-K through 2nd grade elementary.
Plexiglass is hard to come by these days.
Smith’s brisk stride down the long, colorful hall of Williston Central School is full of intention and only interrupted by brief stops to show new hand sanitizing stations, water fountains functioning as bottle fillers only, to explain the uses of disinfectant sprayers or to answer questions from workers.
Much of the work Smith and his crew are doing to keep students and staff safe when school resumes involves construction and physical changes to the facility, but some of the work is largely unseen.
Lyall Smith, Facilities Manager for Williston Schools is tasked with getting schools ready for reopening in the fall after being closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Smith will be overseeing upgrades to some of Williston Schools’ HVAC systems and filters to help mitigate airborne transmission of the virus. He is in a large air handler room at Williston Central School on July 21, 2020. (Photo: APRIL BARTON/FREE PRESS)
He is tasked with slowing the invisible air transmission of virus particulates by making upgrades to the ventilation systems of the two schools serving pre-K through 8th grade students.
Air quality improvement is a major component of readying schools for in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There is growing evidence that this virus can remain airborne for longer times and further distances than originally thought,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency. “In addition to close contact with infected people and contaminated surfaces, there is a possibility that spread of COVID-19 may also occur via airborne particles in indoor environments, in some circumstances beyond the 2 m (about 6 ft) range encouraged by social distancing recommendations.”
A significant portion of the the Vermont state guidelines for school reopening addresses this issue, but upgrades to the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system — HVAC — can be costly and time consuming. Schools are finding financial relief through a grant program from Efficiency Vermont, which is also connecting schools with contractors.
The program Williston Central School uses to monitor air quality and the efficiency of its HVAC system, seen July 21, 2020. Carbon dioxide is one item measured to determine if more outdoor air is needed to improve airflow. This is one way the school plans to keep students safe during the novel coronavirus pandemic when classes resume for fall 2020. (Photo: APRIL BARTON/FREE PRESS)
Williston uses high-tech monitoring, makes smaller upgrades
Williston Central School completed a nearly $20 million renovation in 2018, much of it spent on a new HVAC system.
The high-tech system allows for real-time monitoring of carbon dioxide levels, the ability to remotely open dampers, adjust humidity levels, and check alarms all through a computer program. When carbon dioxide levels rise, it is an indication airflow is encumbered by the amount of people exhaling in a space. Adjustments can be made with the click of a button to ensure more outside air can circulate.
This is one way air quality will be kept in check to help keep Williston students healthy.
The schools are also installing enhanced filters to catch finer air particles. As a result, filters must be changed more frequently. In the MERV rating system from 1 to 20 for air filters, those with higher numbers capture smaller particles. For instance, MERV 17 and higher are reserved for surgical operating rooms or clean rooms. MERV 13 filters will be in much of Williston Central School and Allen Brook School is upgrading its filters to MERV 10, from 8.
Allen Brook School is hoping to do about $4,000 in upgrades to recommission its 1996 HVAC system to include CO2 sensors and other monitors.
Both schools are considering which spaces to convert to isolation rooms, which would be negatively pressured and disconnected from the air system from the rest of the school. Isolation rooms are one of the areas the Agency of Education’s guidelines suggest for holding persons who could be infected with the virus.
Smith is waiting to hear from engineers about the scope of those projects, whether a bathroom-type exhaust fan will be sufficient or require more work.
He plans to buy air purifiers for smaller spaces, where one-on-one meetings take place, and is waiting to see if Efficiency Vermont is able to offer a group deal to schools going in together, to see some cost savings.
For Smith, the work has already begun. He was worried workers wouldn’t be available with what little time is left to make school improvements. He is making changes and payments now, hoping money through Efficiency Vermont will help offset those costs later.
Smith recognizes Williston schools are in a good position.
“There are those schools out there that are gonna need some real significant help to make their systems function,” he said.
Hundreds of Vermont schools applying for air quality grants
In the two weeks since its launch on July 8, about 220 of Vermont’s 350 eligible schools expressed interest in receiving grant money to complete air quality improvement projects through Efficiency Vermont.
The state allocated $6.5 million in CARES Act coronavirus relief to schools expecting to spend, in some cases, four to six figures on upgrades, according to Jody Lesko, program director for Efficiency Vermont.
Lesko was surprised by the quick and robust response to the School Indoor Air Quality Grant Program. The organization is now working with individual schools to define the scope of work needed to modify existing HVAC systems in a way that would have the greatest impact in a short amount of time.
The five types of projects grant money can fund are:
- Install, modify, or perform maintenance on existing ventilation and filtration systems.
- Modify control sequences to meet industry recommendations and calibrate sensors.
- Implement supplemental equipment where needed (air purification, humidity controls, etc.).
- Regularly check indoor air quality using monitors, which will be provided to schools through this program.
- Create isolation zones for nurse rooms.
One of several air handler rooms at Williston Central School, seen July 21, 2020. Air quality systems are being upgraded in advance of schools reopening for the fall 2020 semester during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: APRIL BARTON/FREE PRESS)
Every eligible school will receive an indoor air quality monitor and $2,500 for upgrades. And all “eligible measures will be funded at 100%” as long as money lasts, Lesko said. One caveat is the work needs to be completed by the end of 2020.
In addition to providing money for those with a grant agreement in hand or as a reimbursement for expenditures already made, Efficiency Vermont is also connecting schools with their contractor network.
“Because the timeline is so short, my main goal is to make it as easy as possible for people to take action,” Lesko said.
The need for air quality improvements “highlighted something that we all knew was happening and also has given us the mechanism for honing in and prioritizing these projects,” she said.
This is just one piece in the puzzle for schools preparing for safely reopening. Lesko said it is wonderful it’s getting a lot of attention and focus from schools.
Smith knows there’s not a lot of time to get the projects done to prepare the Williston schools for opening day.
“We are prioritizing as much as we can to keep the kids and the teachers safe,” he said.
Contact April Barton at email@example.com or 802-660-1854. Follow her on Twitter @aprildbarton.
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