Keith Hammelman, PE
Keith Hammelman, PE
May 21, 2020

How Do We Safely Return to Schools? Building Engineers are Helping Inform that Discussion

Keith Hammelman, PE
Keith Hammelman, PE

There are many factors to consider when deciding when and how to safely open schools across the country. Building engineers are working together to ensure facility managers have a comprehensive understanding of the many considerations related to heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems (HVAC).

The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning (ASHRAE) has established a task force to provide guidance and temporary recommendations to facility directors regarding the re-opening of schools during the current pandemic. ASHRAE’s position is that “Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 through the air is sufficiently likely that airborne exposure to the virus should be controlled. Changes to building operations, including the operation of heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning [HVAC] systems, can reduce airborne exposures.”

Read the full ASHRAE report here >

Our own Keith Hammelman, PE, engineering principal and mechanical discipline leader, is a member of this particular task force. We asked him about some of the key takeaways from this group.

There is No Silver Bullet.

There is not a one-size-fits-all solution for educational facilities when considering their re-opening strategy. We tried to apply a broad range of considerations so facility directors could apply them to their specific building types—from kindergartens to universities.

We all know there is an influx of information available and, at times, it can be conflicting or biased when addressing this pandemic. The intent of the ASHRAE task force is to provide a single collection of information and best practices that are non-biased and consolidated.

Determine Building Readiness

We compiled seven recommendations and strategies that facility directors should consider when determining readiness and operations for existing facilities after shutdown. Organized from simple to more complex, the suggestions include setting up a safety committee, ensuring PPE requirements are in place and ensuring mechanical systems are running at peak performance.

Check. Verify. Check Again.

Because the HVAC systems play such a key role in containing the spread of airborne exposure, we have compiled detailed checklists based on the time of year and frequency of checks needed. These checklists include sample information that facility directors should be confirming now, what should happen in the weeks leading up to school opening, and when school is back in session. Some examples are confirming systems are operational, filters are changed, building automation systems are operational, and that maintenance staff is trained appropriately during the pandemic mode.

Considering Climate Zones

When looking at guidelines from across the country, we considered the different design criteria for temperature and humidity systems that may be in certain buildings. For example, a school in Southern California may be predominantly cooling only, but a school in the Chicago area is designed for both extreme winters and hot/humid summers.

We hope the ASHRAE document is helpful in providing guidance on how and when key HVAC considerations should be tested and upgraded if necessary. We are fortunate to have an organization like ASHRAE where experts from diverse geographic areas and backgrounds can work together to create solutions for the greater good to get schools safely re-opened.

Learn more about our firm’s response to COVID-19 >