Portland Public Schools secures 3,500 air purifiers to improve classroom air flow


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Mar 16, 2023

Portland Public Schools secures 3,500 air purifiers to improve classroom air flow

Amy Hoffmann (right) and her daughter Maisy Borden stand outside of Lent School

Amy Hoffmann (right) and her daughter Maisy Borden stand outside of Lent School in Southeast Portland. Maisy's classroom had 1.5 air changes per hour last year, well below minimum ventilation recommendations. Dave Killen / The Oregonian

Portland Public Schools is getting 3,500 free portable air purifiers from the Oregon Health Authority in an effort to improve classroom ventilation.

The order will allow the district to install a second purifier in many of its classrooms, boosting air filtration where it has been lagging behind recommended standards.

The district's announcement comes after an investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive last May found a quarter of the district's elementary and middle school classrooms had subpar ventilation rates. District officials initially defended those low rates, even as experts said inadequate ventilation can affect disease transmission and lower the ability of students to think and learn.

Following the newsroom's investigation, the Oregon Health Authority in September clarified its air quality and ventilation guidance for schools and recommended "a range of 3-6 air changes per hour" in classrooms and other "public indoor spaces," along with other strategies to improve air quality. Air changes measure the number of times a room's total volume of old, stale air is replaced by fresh air within an hour's time.

Portland Public Schools subsequently said it would try to meet that guidance, though it isn't mandatory. Even so, parents concerned about ventilation in classrooms said they had to push the district to take action.

Testing by Portland Public Schools had revealed that nearly 500 out of 2,000 classrooms in its elementary and middle schools failed to achieve three air changes per hour, even with existing purifiers running at full blast, the newsroom's investigation found. Some teachers said they only turned the units to half-speed because the machines were too noisy, meaning the actual rates were even lower. Some classrooms didn't even get one air change per hour.

This month, the day after the United States ended its public health emergency for COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the first time also set a target for maintaining healthy indoor air quality, recommending five air changes per hour.

The federal ventilation guidance applies to all buildings, including non-healthcare settings such as schools as well as healthcare spaces that are not already covered by more stringent ventilation standards, said CDC spokesperson Scott Pauley.

Freddie Mack, a spokesperson for Portland Public Schools, said the district is aware of the new CDC target, but it won't affect its current ventilation plan given how similar it is to the state's guidance.

"We’ll continue to try to shoot for six air changes per hour to reach the OHA recommendations," Mack told The Oregonian/OregonLive.

The new purifiers, which PPS ordered earlier this month and will arrive next month, will allow the district to install a second air purifier in many of its 2,700 classrooms, Mack said. Variables such as room use, size and building HVAC systems will determine which classrooms receive the additional unit.

The district did not order higher capacity air purifiers designated for large communal spaces such as gyms, cafeterias and libraries, Mack said. Instead, common areas will continue to rely on air handling systems equipped with MERV 13 filters, which are efficient at removing large particles from the air and are often used in commercial and industrial settings.

In addition to the purifiers, the district also will receive a five-year supply of filters for the new purifiers and for nearly all of the district's existing 5,464 purifiers. The new purifiers and filters, made by a company called Medify Air, are funded through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Portland Public Schools won't be the only one to receive the air purifiers. The Oregon Health Authority said it has received a total of 298 orders from K-12 schools and districts from across 30 counties in Oregon. These include 177 orders from 68 school districts and 111 private and charter schools, said Jonathan Modie, a spokesman with the agency's public health division.

A total of 18,704 air purifiers have been ordered through this project, which includes Portland Public Schools’ order, Modie told The Oregonian/OregonLive in an email. He said vendors are continuing to work on processing and fulfilling the orders.

Effie Greathouse, the mother of two students at Hayhurst Elementary School and an organizer with Safe Indoor Air For Oregon Schools, praised Portland Public Schools’ decision to order the additional air purifiers. She founded the parent group to push the district to reach recommended ventilation targets.

In early April, after OHA announced the purifier program, Greathouse said parents blanketed school staff and district board members with emails and calls to encourage the district and individual schools to get more purifiers from the state's public health agency. On April 24, district staff told parents they had placed an order for only 600 units, documents show. Then, on May 2, the district sent a second announcement saying it had increased the order to 3,500 purifiers. The district declined to comment on why it initially placed a smaller order.

"Recognizing the need to have multiple air purifiers in the vast majority of PPS classrooms is a real shift from the way district staff and board members have thought about and understood classroom ventilation and air quality," Greathouse wrote in an email.

Now, Greathouse said, the district needs to make sure that the additional air purifiers are actually turned on – which has been challenging in the past. Teachers throughout the district who haven't been running their units may need more training and support on why additional ventilation is important, how to run the units on a quiet setting and how to change filters, Greathouse said.

Mack, the district spokesman, said teachers will receive instruction on how to properly operate the units.

"The health and safety of PPS students and staff is our utmost priority," Mack said. "We continue to take steps to improve air quality across PPS buildings, and we will employ these new systems in a thoughtful way that ensures maximum efficiency and optimal results."

– Gosia Wozniacka; [email protected]; @gosiawozniacka

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