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Can Air Handling Systems Prevent the Spread of COVID-19 in Schools? Ongoing Research at Syracuse COE

John Smith / WAER News

The start of the 2020 school year finds parents, teachers and administrators questioning:  "Is it safe to head back to school without a vaccine for COVID-19?"  Researchers at Syracuse University have been researching effective ways air, heating and cooling systems may play to prevent airborne viruses from spreading while inside.  WAER takes you inside for an audio tour.

Inside the COE, a massive air handling system is connected via air ducts to room laboratories to test for cross-contamination of air that can occur in the room, whether it's COVID-19, the flu or any virus.

“This system we can set-up the conditions so that everyone gets their own filtered, clean air,” says Jensen Zhang, Professor and Director of the Building Energy and Environmental Systems Laboratory, “which can prevent cross-contamination in the case of Coronavirus infection, we can really control that.”

In the lab upstairs, located above the massive HVAC system, are seemingly usual workspaces with separate cubicles.  What is not usual is the incoming air vents from the floor and vents-out above in each individual cubicle.

Credit John Smith / WAER News
A look into a test cubicle with individual air temperature controls.

”In this space we have a diffuser in each cubicle which gives individual air control for the air supply,” says Meng Kong, Professor and Research Assistant at the Building Energy and Environmental Systems Laboratory.  “So, each person in the cubicle can have their own preference of how much air they want, what’s the temperature they prefer and how much fresh air they need.  They can adjust their airflow to their cubicle, individually based on their own preference.”

Humidity levels in a room is another factor that affects the spread of infections.  Jeremy McDonald is a Principal and VP of Guth DeConzo Consulting Engineers in Troy, New York, and says research is showing that low relative humidity in a room means that virus particles are more buoyant causing them to remain airborne longer… leaving humans at risk for longer time periods.  He suggests each school building should get an individual HVAC check-up to assess its air system’s handling performance and filtration.

Credit John Smith / WAER News
Research Assistant / Professor of the Building Energy and Environmental Systems Laboratory at Syracuse CEO is pictured here with a thermal testing dummy he named, "Clyde" who's important role is to put the human elements while testing for cross-contamination of air in the workspace lab.

“I think, if we kind of pivot towards that type of approach, the discussion gets less political and more back to the technical area where it really needs to be, so that we can really be confident if we’re recommending to bring our kids back into a certain school that we’ve really looked at the performance and made sure that the performance is tip top.”

He anticipates an increase in virus cases in the fall and winter in the Northeast when heating systems are turned on, causing indoor humidity to drop significantly.  To read more about McDonald's prediction, click here.  Experts say HVAC systems alone are not the only safety means to stop the spread of COVID-19, they emphasize masks and social distancing are also necessary.

Some schools are preparing to send kids back to school 3 to 5 days a week, while others are starting the school year virtually.  Every precaution they take will hopefully lead to the best outcomes. 

Credit Guth DeConzo Engineers

Other research out of the Center of Excellence suggests that the cost of improving ventilation in every classroom could prove to be a barrier… and even the best ventilation cannot protect everyone in schools unless students adhere to mask wearing from Pre-K to High School and social distancing.

Credit Guth DeConzo Engineers