Updated: Nov 17
Many people think school closures are a top-down, city-wide decision that is off the table these days. On the contrary, being unprepared for excessive illness takes the decision-making out of our hands.
On Sunday, WKYT in Kentucky reported that Barbourville City School announced closures due to staff shortages from illness. And WVTM13 in Birmingham, Alabama reported yesterday that "flu and flu-like symptoms" forced a private school in Blount County to close for two days.
In 2023, Southeastern schools have already closed a few times due to illness and illness-related staff shortages. This shows that, as things stand, school closures are happening whether we wanted them to be a thing of the past or not.
Simultaneously, we see some community members expressing gratitude when schools close, because it protects kids and teachers from exposure to illness:
Just this past week, a North Alabama military mom reportedly took extended leave from work to stay by her toddler's bedside as he fought for his life, with her active duty husband stationed hundreds of miles away. Later, ABC News reported that RSV is on the rise in the south, meaning that there will be more of these heart-wrenching stories crossing our news feeds and social media timelines.
But allowing school closures is not the ideal way to receive praise for protecting kids and faculty in response to unmanageable illness. School closures are an unforced error because experts have given us all the tools to adapt based on what we've learned about how respiratory illnesses are transmitted.
On 60 Minutes, aerosol scientist Linsey Marr demonstrated how airborne illnesses permeate classroom air like smoke, and how something we take for granted--ventilation--can clear the air:
In the last six months, CDC issued a new guideline for everyday ventilation of workplaces and schools, and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) issued a new standard for handling epidemics, flu seasons, and pandemics.
The problem is that many schools don't even know they don't meet the ventilation requirements for meeting plain old mechanical code. Through lending CO2 monitors to parents and faculty, we've found that many schools only provide a fraction of the outdoor air that is required to meet code. Here is what that looks like in comparison to meeting (1) mechanical code, (2) CDC's new guideline for everyday use, and (3) ASHRAE's standard specifically for handling epidemics:
Schools that are far below meeting code are giving kids about one tenth of what is recommended for keeping them healthy and in class. It should be no head-scratcher when this culminates in schools sourcing 70% of household spread of illness and suffering a doubling of chronic absenteeism after the introduction of a wholly new airborne way to get sick. By focusing ESSER spending on learning loss from 2020 instead of controlling the thing that kicked kids out of school in the first place, decision-makers have failed to address the source of the problem, and we should expect to continue to struggle with "extended learning loss".
Why are we hitting ourselves?
America's parents can't be available to work when they're at their children's bedsides due to respiratory illnesses... And subsequently sick themselves... Over and over again, lather, rinse, repeat.
If you're a parent who is sick of being sick, send a CO2 monitor to school with your student. If you can't afford a CO2 monitor, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If the CO2 concentration is greater than 1,100 parts per million, your school is not bringing in the amount of outdoor air required by International Mechanical Code, which would mean they almost certainly don't meet 2023 guidelines and standards.
And if you're a school or school district: join the Department of Energy's Efficient, Healthy Schools Campaign (EHSC) by emailing EHSC@lbl.gov. This program offers to lend you carbon dioxide monitors and help you with interpreting the data. You can use this to spot check ventilation in all your buildings and prioritize the ones with the highest CO2 concentrations for a Testing, Adjusting, and Balancing. Moreover, parents need you to scroll back up and familiarize yourself with the new guidelines and standards, and commit to targeting those. Because HVAC systems (even with MERV 13 filters) are not likely to be able to meet the recommended flow rates of clean air, the CDC, EPA, and experts from ASHRAE and the Center for Green Schools all suggest using portable HEPA filters like Huntsville City Schools did, to boost your clean air flow rate.
While these guidelines and standards are non-binding, kids have a whole new way to get sick that is "here to stay"; we certainly can't expect kids to show up to class if we're letting respiratory viruses (new and old) hang around in classroom air.