Howard County schools Superintendent Michael Martirano announced at a recent school board meeting that the school system’s purchase of 4,600 high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filters is expected to be delivered to all county public schools by Oct. 1.
The filters, which were purchased through federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, or ESSER III, will be installed in cafeterias, classrooms and other common spaces to better protect staff, students and teachers from the coronavirus and other air contaminants, beginning with the most densely populated elementary schools.
Two weeks before the Sept. 2 announcement, the Howard County Public School System sent out a comprehensive reopening plan to families highlighting some of its health and safety protocols heading into the upcoming in-person school year, which included requiring masks for all staff, students and visitors in school buildings regardless of their vaccination status, requiring staff to show proof of full vaccination or undergo regular testing, and installing carbon dioxide sensors with data-logging capabilities in school cafeterias and HEPA filters in the isolation room in each school’s health suite.
Despite these protocols, the plan made no mention of the installation of HEPA filters in common spaces, which have been proven to reduce the potential for coronavirus transmission, or the practice of “cohorting” or keeping students in the same classroom throughout the school day, which caused major concern among some parents.
Shortly after the plan was released, parents discussed strategies as to how they could urge the school system to purchase the filters for all county public schools.
Elizabeth Kromm, of Columbia, who has two daughters in the first grade at Swansfield Elementary School, is one of the parents who advocated for the filters.
After noticing the filters were not included in the school system’s reopening plan, she took to social media to discuss with other parents how they could be purchased for the schools.
“Some fellow [parents] in my community started messaging back and forth and it quickly became a discussion about how we require layered mitigation strategies in order to keep our kids and staff safe in schools, and one of the strategies that was clearly missing were these portable HEPA filters,” Kromm said.
Drafting and sending out a petition with more than 800 signatures in support of the filters to the Board of Education, the County Council and Martirano, the parents banded together to make sure the decision to purchase the filters would benefit all students.
“This was never a parents versus the administration thing or a parents are going to take this upon themselves to fix it for their own individual child’s classroom or anything,” Kromm said. “[This] was how can we make sure that this very important piece of precaution gets into all the necessary spaces in the school system.”
Seeking the support of board members, Kromm brought the issue before Vice Chair Jen Mallo, who arranged a meeting between board members, health experts from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the University of Maryland School of Public Health and Martirano to discuss solutions to improve the school system’s air quality mitigation strategies.
“It was determined that one of the best things to do would be to employ these HEPA filters in classrooms as well as the other really important areas like cafeterias,” Mallo said. “It was really important that I use my connections in the community and my connections with epidemiologists and public health officials to find the experts that are going to give a scientifically, more evidence-based solution rather than a solution that’s based on some decision.”
The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggests that even if ventilation in a school already meets current building standards, additional air filtration from a portable device can help reduce the potential for coronavirus transmission.
A quiet unit can increase the number of air changes by at least three to five times in an 800-square-foot classroom and is less taxing on electrical systems than a portable air conditioner, according to the Hopkins experts.
Increasing the number of air changes per hour may substantially reduce aerosol transmission risks.
“Portable air filters can be part of the solution to provide high levels of ventilation in a classroom. Ventilation is especially important when considering small, COVID-containing particles that can travel further than 6 feet and may spread around an entire room,” said Kirsten Koehler, associate professor of environmental health and engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
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“Portable air filters can increase the ventilation rate above what can be achieved with existing HVAC systems and can be used when the weather does not permit the opening of doors and windows. Together, these can be an important way to reduce risk of exposure to COVID-19, particularly in classrooms with younger children who cannot be vaccinated.”
Amy Becker, of Columbia, is the mother of a second and fourth grader at Swansfield Elementary.
She said she thinks the purchase of the filters is a step in the right direction but should have happened much sooner.
“I think that parents are grateful but also feel that this should have been taken care of over the spring and summer,” Becker said.
Becky McGill-Wilkinson, also of Columbia, has a son in preschool and a daughter in first grade at Swansfield Elementary.
She said she is pleased to know the filters will be installed in the schools.
“My kids are too young to be vaccinated and they’re good mask wearers, but nothing is 100%,” McGill-Wilkinson said. “This HEPA filter part is a relief to me because it’s one additional protection to help us protect our kids.”