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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Getting kids back to in-person learning could hinge on upgrading the ventilation systems in school buildings.

Why it matters: This is a massive undertaking in the U.S., where school maintenance has been neglected and the average school building is 44 years old. Significant stimulus funds can be funneled to installing new A/C systems, but it may not happen by fall.

How it works: Scientists now realize that poorly ventilated settings increase the likelihood of airborne transmission of COVID-19.

  • The concentration of viral particles in the air is usually higher indoors than outdoors, where a breeze can quickly reduce the particle concentration, per the CDC. Better indoor ventilation means it's less likely that viral particles are inhaled or contact eyes, nose and mouth, or fall onto surfaces.
  • While the CDC says it's not necessary, in most cases, to install new ventilation systems to re-occupy a building during the pandemic, its guidance to school districts seeking to reopen is to ensure ventilation systems operate properly.

Where it stands: 4 in 10 U.S. school districts need to update or replace the HVAC systems in at least half of their school buildings — affecting about 36,000 school buildings, according to a June 2020 Government Accountability Office report.

  • At a school in Rhode Island, some components of its HVAC system are nearly 100 years old. A Michigan school is heating the building using a boiler from the 1920s, per the report.
  • Some school buildings that remained open this year tried to increase air flow by opening windows to incorporate outside air and used fans to keep air circulating. This is hard to do on very hot or cold days, though.

What's happening: The $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package includes $168 billion for K-12 schools and colleges. School districts have until 2024 to use the money.

  • Rep. Bobby Scott, (D-Va.) — Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, who's been focused on measures to safely open schools — said schools have not been maintained properly. Many, particularly those serving low-income students and communities of color, need a lot of renovation.
  • Some estimates put the cost of bringing America's schools up to code at $200 billion.
  • Scott introduced the Reopen and Rebuild America's Schools Act of 2021, which would invest $130 billion in physical and digital infrastructure. That proposal is mentioned as part of President Biden's $3 trillion infrastructure propsal.
  • That funding "will get us well on the way to addressing the deficits in school infrastructure, the school buildings, internet connections, ventilation systems, and everything else schools need," he said during an Axios virtual event last week.

What to watch: Upgrading schools' HVAC systems may also have other benefits for students beyond COVID-19. Studies have also linked better ventilation to increases in productivity, morale and even cognitive function, Axios' Marisa Fernandez reports.

  • Even a 2-4% increase in productivity can lead to financial gains, William Bahnfleth, professor of architectural engineering at Pennsylvania State University, told Axios.

Reality check: Improved ventilation alone is not the silver bullet for safely reopening schools. It's part of a "layered approach" that also includes wearing masks and keeping children socially distanced.

Go deeper

Updated Mar 25, 2021 - Axios Events

Watch: A conversation on classrooms after COVID-19

On Thursday, March 25, Axios national technology correspondent Kim Hart and business reporter Erica Pandey hosted one-on-one conversations with Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond to discuss the safe return to in-person learning.

Rep. Bobby Scott discussed ventilation as an integral part of school reopenings, as well as the sense of urgency around returning students to their classrooms.

  • On the widespread crisis of proper ventilation in schools: "40 percent of the school districts in this country need to repair or replace the heating, ventilation, air conditioning systems and more than half their schools. So those schools cannot open safely without ventilation."
  • On in-person learning being essential to educational development: "We know the students do better academically when they are in person. We know they have access to school meals and nutrition. We know that their social and emotional learning can take place when they're interacting with [other] students."

Tony Thurmond unpacked critical safety measures in school reopenings, and how the state is working to bridge learning gaps that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

  • What the COVID-19 relief package looks like on the ground in schools: "It gives access to COVID testing...We still need people to be wearing masks, social distancing, and having the supplies for disinfecting campuses. Those resources will also help to accelerate learning, to offset those learning gaps, more tutoring or summer programs, more afterschool programs."
  • On essential safety precautions in classrooms: "There has to be social distancing. There has to be the wearing of face masks and people have to wash their hands. I would say that those are certainly the three keys...And from my standpoint, rapid COVID testing is really just everything."

Axios Vice President Yolanda Brignoni hosted a View from the Top segment with Siemens Corporation President and CEO Barbara Humpton to discuss new safety protocols and technologies in schools to help keep students, teachers, and staff safe.

  • "How might our indoor environments be transformed actually into a front line of defense?... We found everything from improving the air quality purification to thermal imaging to UV lighting...a whole array of technologies that could help."

Thank you Siemens for sponsoring this event.

Mar 27, 2021 - World

Germany warns next coronavirus wave could be country's worst yet

The city centre in Offenbach, Germany. Photo: Frank Rumpenhorst/picture alliance via Getty Images

German officials warned Friday the third wave of the coronavirus in the country is going to be "harder to curb" and could be far worse than the previous two.

Why it matters: The number of new confirmed cases has jumped in recent weeks largely due to the more transmissible B.1.1.7 variant and the relaxation of some lockdown measures, according to Reuters.

Mar 27, 2021 - World

Chinese officials brief diplomats on possible COVID-19 origins

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Chinese officials briefed diplomats in Beijing on Friday on four possible ways the coronavirus arrived in Wuhan, AP reports.

Why it matters: The briefing comes ahead of the release of the World Health Organization's report on the virus' origin, and "is based on a visit earlier this year by a WHO team of international experts to Wuhan," the AP writes.

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