During the pandemic, indoor air quality in schools took the spotlight as lawmakers, parents and the public realized the importance of proper ventilation and filtration in keeping children safe from airborne pathogens. Long before this, ventilation professionals were working on ways to inform educators, administrators and school districts about indoor air quality — the pandemic only increased the urgency to get easy-to-use information into the hands of those who could make the most difference.

Recently, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) released a guide, developed by the ASHRAE Technical Committee 9.7 – Educational Facilities, for educators, administrators and school districts on indoor air quality. The document, “Design Guidance for Educational Facilities: Prioritization for Advanced Indoor Air Quality,” provides a checklist as well as prerequisite and optional tasks in order of importance. Design professionals and contractors can use the guide as a tool when sitting down with school personnel to discuss options to improve indoor air quality based on existing HVAC equipment, regional objectives and available funding. (After recent consultation with various government agencies, the guide will be updated to reflect the needs of government grants.)

Teachers, administrators and parents can consider a range of change options from base minimum to advanced recommendations to improve indoor air quality, all under the guidance of a licensed, certified ventilation professional.

Don’t know much about indoor air quality? You don’t have to in order to take the first steps, said Catherine Tinkler, a former classroom teacher and administrator who now serves as a strategic planning consultant and commissioning professional for Page Southerland Page and a member of the ASHRAE Technical Committee 9.7 – Education Facilities working group. A certified and licensed professional is closer than you may realize. 

“Don’t go it alone. Reach out for assistance. There are people in ASHRAE who are very knowledgeable about educational facilities and who want to benefit students,” she said. “Read, study and look into what indoor air quality means to you and your school. Do your homework and then reach out for technical guidance, because there are a lot of people ready to help.”

Tinkler compared looking at a school’s indoor air quality to putting together a group project. Compile a group of internal professionals such as administrators, facilities maintenance and planners but also bring in specialists from outside the organization, including consultants and certified ventilation experts. In addition to any professionals the district has consulting contracts with, parents in these fields would likely be willing to help, too, she added.

“This guidance walks them through some prerequisites for what they should understand before they start,” Tinkler said. Partnering with a skilled, trained and certified ventilation expert at the beginning of the process is integral to how the rest of the guide is used. “It also gives them guidance using a defined rubric, so they can score their environment to see if it meets the base minimums, almost like a pass-fail. Then, it recommends tasks to complete, including high and very high priority tasks, to improve the score and the environment.”

Raj Setty, president of Setty, a full-service mechanical, electrical and plumbing consulting engineering firm and co-author of the guide, said while scientists did a good job telling us what needs to be done to prevent the spread of disease — improving ventilation, filtration and air flow — it is now the purvey of consulting HVAC engineers to tell the public how to implement it with their specific use cases. 

The guide does just that. Once a school has a ventilation verification assessment performed, educators meet with a design professional to assess their system and determine their needs, they can use the guide for simple tasks, such as determining what temperature and weather conditions to open windows; calculating which air filters to use; learning when to open and close dampers due to outdoor air quality; and planning placement and proper use of carbon dioxide (CO2) sensors, air cleaners and UV-C, or ultraviolet light, in their classrooms. The ventilation professional can help determine if these fixes are enough, or if upgrades or repairs to the HVAC system are also warranted. Flexibility, especially in an environment as dynamic as a school, is optimal, Setty said.

“It’s really about putting the systems in place to give operators the option,” he said. “It’s a common-sense guide.”

Knowledge is power. The guide not only gives educators a roadmap to use when sitting down with their ventilation professional, it helps them make educated decisions about their classrooms’ indoor air quality at any point during the day.

“The guide gives schools a tool to help them determine their risk. It helps to identify the problem and allow clients to make choices,” said Chris Ruch, co-author on the guide, director of education at the National Energy Management Institute and a former classroom teacher. “This guide will help customers be better informed when they meet with contractors and design professionals and help them understand more about the air they breathe.”