New and old sections of Chiaravalle School, in an image from the school's website.

In addition to everything else COVID-related, school administrators now have more worries about their HVAC — their heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

For schools opening during the pandemic, air quality from classroom to restroom has to be managed, trying to minimize the spread of the novel coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control has issued multiple recommendations, ranging from no cost (open the windows) to expensive (ultraviolet germicidal irradiation, or UVGI), $1,500 per room.

But for a school system with 18 buildings, and hundreds of rooms, spending $1,500 for each of those rooms could break the bank.

Evanston/Skokie District 65 already expects $1.6 million worth of COVID-related expenses, for items such as personal protective equipment and laptops for students. The district’s Fiscal 2021 budget includes this warning: “The impact of the pandemic, which has been devastating to our entire community, will affect the financial situation of the District for years to come.”

District 65 began school today with all of the system’s 7,300 students on remote learning. But, health conditions permitting, the district will switch to in-person schooling in late September for those families who want it.

District spokesperson Melissa Messinger says HVAC systems in the schools are being inspected and undergoing regular maintenance, including changing the air filters.

“If conditions allow,” she says, District 65 will try to limit the use of spaces with no windows. But in cases where those rooms are needed, “portable HEPA filters will be installed to increase ventilation and clean air flow.” HEPA, high efficiency particulate air filters, are among the CDC’s recommendations.

Also open this week, Roycemore School, a private school with just over 200 students in pre-kindergarten through grade 12. Spokesperson Emily Latimer says Roycemore has replaced all of its air filters with the more effective MERV-13 variety.

“This was at substantial cost,” she says, “but we felt it was important to do in order to make our school as healthy an environment as possible.” Latimer says Roycemore has also increased the percentage of fresh air intake by 25 per cent, putting more of that fresh air into the building. In addition, “teachers have been encouraged to open their windows fully each morning and leave them open all day until they leave in the evening.”

Perhaps the luckiest school in Evanston, if anything can be considered lucky in a pandemic, is Chiaravelle Montessori. Renovation planned before the virus led to significant improvements in a late-19th century building.

When school opens in person on Tuesday, an “eco-friendly, best in class” HVAC system will be in operation, one that “replaces fresh air in the building twice an hour,” according to the school’s website. The improvements also include UVGI, and another system called advanced oxidation, all of this allowing “the school to go above and beyond to improve air quality and reduce the risk of airborne exposure.”

Evanston Township High School opened with remote learning, which officials expect to continue at least through the first semester and likely beyond that. So ETHS does not have to worry about indoor air quality immediately.

But all schools will have to look more closely at the problem when the weather gets colder. Opening the windows just won’t cut it in an Illinois winter.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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