In the wake of the challenging reopening of schools during the pandemic, Alabama schools were granted a lifeline in the form of the federally funded ELC Reopening Schools initiative. We previously blogged about this program last year. The program ended July 31st after giving free portable HEPA air purifiers to 703 Alabama public and private schools totaling over 24,000 HEPA air purifiers. According to Public School Review, Alabama has 1,554 public schools and 457 private schools, meaning that only 35% of Alabama Schools chose to opt into the program.
A public records request submitted by Indoor Air Care Advocates to the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) revealed the names of all of the schools who received the portable HEPA air purifiers and how many each school received.
To see whether your school accepted portable HEPA air purifiers (and how many), you can download the original data as furnished by ADPH, here:
Indoor Air Care Advocates has converted the PDF to a spreadsheet, performed some cleanup, and uploaded it to Google Sheets to make the data more accessible for analysis at:
(Indoor Air Care Advocates does not warrant the spreadsheet version to be free of discrepancies or analytical errors; please contact us at email@example.com with any errata.)
While this program marks a significant step forward in creating safer and healthier learning environments, the greatest positive impact will be seen at schools that allowed UAB to furnish them with at least one air purifier per classroom. Take Huntsville City Schools for example, where astute administrators accepted two portable HEPA air purifiers per classroom.
Here are the top most interesting things we found:
Huntsville City Schools: #1 in total units of any district (4,842) and #2 in units per participating school (107, which we know to be two units per classroom)
Perry County Schools: #1 in count of units per participating school (175 units per school, with two schools participating)
Shelby County: #2 in total units of any district (2,035) and #10 in units per participating school (65.6)
Jefferson County: #3 in total units of any district (1,909)
Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind: #3 in units per participating school (100)
Tuscaloosa City: #4 in total units of any district (1,131), with about 49 units per school
Walker County: #5 in total units of any district (892), with about 52 units per school
In our own neighborhood, and in contrast to Huntsville City Schools, we saw that Madison City Schools (MCS) only accepted 15 purifiers per school. When advocate Tara Bailey informed Superintendent Nichols that MCS could obtain one or potentially two units per classroom, he indicated he would pass it on to Director Jones, but the school ultimately did not act on the opportunity. Meanwhile, Madison County Schools does not appear on the list.
As we delve into the implications of these choices, it becomes evident that indoor air quality remains an area in need of more attention on the part of Alabama's educational decision-makers.
The Power of Portable HEPA Filters
What's the significance of portable HEPA filters? These devices capture a wide spectrum of particles including bacteria, viruses, allergens, mold, and other pollutants without modification to existing HVAC systems. Experts including those at the USGBC Center for Green Schools inform that these filters capture at least 99.97% of even the most penetrative particles that may attempt to pass through the filter medium:
While these HEPA filters demonstrate a commitment to health and safety, in many cases, the number of HEPA air purifiers accepted per school will fall short of what is necessary to appreciably improve classroom air quality. In order for schools to achieve the recommended levels of clean air it is imperative they tap into federal, state and local funding opportunities for further indoor air quality improvements. The National Education Association (NEA) does a great job of outlining the importance of indoor air quality in schools and the federal funding sources available to make it happen, such as the Renew America's Schools grant and Inflation Reduction Act.
Whatever the reason may have been for the less-than-vigorous participation in Alabama's ELC-funded HEPA filter program, the outcome leaves room for improvement in a few dimensions:
Attendance: A broad swath of studies show that improved air quality has measurable positive impacts on attendance, student cognitive performance, and grades. Non-participation in the ELC-funded HEPA program is an unforced error by way of failing to exercise all opportunities to claw back attendance after the 2022 ALSDE school report card reflected a doubling of chronic absenteeism in Alabama versus 2021.
Health and safety: Accepting only a small number of units may result in areas such as classrooms, common spaces, or high-traffic zones remaining unprotected, creating potential risk zones for airborne contaminants. This undermines the overarching goal of providing the consistently safe and healthy environment that all students and staff need in order to be successful.
Equity: All students and staff, regardless of their location within a school (and regardless of their school's location within this state), deserve equal access to clean and safe air.
Inclusion of, and fair access to public education for, students with disabilities: In their Disability-Inclusive Response to COVID-19, the UN stated that "Persons with disabilities are at greater risk of developing more severe health conditions and dying from COVID-19. They have greater health requirements and poorer health outcomes. For example, they are more susceptible to secondary conditions and co-morbidities, such as lung problems, diabetes and heart disease, and obesity, which can worsen the outcome of COVID-19 infections." Non-participation or under-participation allows these deleterious and unequal effects to continue unhindered.
Moving Forward: Ensuring Recommended School Air Quality Levels
To address these concerns and maximize the benefits of portable HEPA filters, it's essential for schools to consider the following steps:
Continuing education: It is necessary for superintendents, board of education members, and especially facilities staff, to be aware of contemporary recommendations, CDC's 2023 guidelines, and the recently established standard for keeping kids healthy and in class in spite of seasonal or endemic illnesses.
Open dialogue: Schools that accepted fewer air purifiers should engage in open communication with stakeholders including parents, teachers, and students, explaining their rationale and seeking input on actionable solutions.
Resource allocation: Schools should explore additional funding sources such as the ones highlighted by the NEA, to ensure that all areas are equipped with recommended levels of air quality.
Collaborative approach: Collaboration among schools, local education authorities, and health experts can lead to better-informed decisions that prioritize the well-being of the entire educational community.
What About Your School?
Did your school leverage the opportunity to give students improved air quality this fall when flu and RSV darken our door once again? Have a look at the spreadsheet to see, and be sure to thank them if they did!
The ELC Reopening Schools initiative has undoubtedly been a boon to some Alabama schools striving to enhance indoor air quality. In some school districts, however, parents have rightly expressed concern about schools opting not to participate or choosing not to exercise the option to get air purifiers into every classroom. As we navigate the path ahead, we must insist that schools familiarize themselves with and adopt contemporary indoor air quality standards; when it comes to the health and safety of our students, teachers, and staff, we should accept nothing less.
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