Fortunately, Rhode Island’s Gov. Dan McKee is strongly recommending that children wear masks when they return to school. This should be a no-brainer. With so many unvaccinated children, including those 12 and under who are not eligible for the vaccination, a mask mandate makes sense.
What also makes sense is the investment in having schools circulate fresh air. States are awash with COVID-19 funds and many don’t know what to do with them. First and foremost, fresh air isn’t an amenity, it is a necessity. As pointed out in a recent Bloomberg magazine opinion (July 19, 2021), COVID-19 has taught the world a few things not the least of which is the value of fresh air. Indoors the contagion spreads easily as virus particles exhaled by the infected lung hang in the air to be inhaled by new victims. Outdoors, at least, offers the flow of air to disperse these aerosol attackers. Ergo, schools (and for that matter, offices, restaurants, etc.) need better ventilation to minimize the harm from the new coronavirus variants, cold and flu viruses, and future unknown pathogens.
Even putting aside for a moment the risk of COVID-19 transmission, events last week documented a new “enemy,” i.e. poor air quality emanating from the fires in Canada that had wafted down into Rhode Island. Climate change has introduced a whole other set of problems whether the polluted air is smoke from fires originating thousands of miles away or industrial gaseous emissions in the Atlantic Northeast. These episodes also give rise to the urgency of the need for clean air. Effective ventilation is a must.
Right now before school even begins the surfeit of COVID-19 related funds should be used for “displacement ventilation.” Virus particles are heavier than air so they remain suspended for hours unless DV sends cool air through vents low in the room and draws warmer air out through the ceiling. Scandinavia is far ahead of this country in implementing systems that circulate fresh air. As Bloomberg magazine pointed out, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers recommended that buildings keep their ventilation system running for hours both before and after people are present.
Schools are a prime breeding ground for air-transmuted illnesses. The poorly ventilated classroom is a petri dish not only for the spread of disease but also for poor student performance as the stagnant air, thick with exhaled carbon dioxide, batters Bobby’s brain.
The mask mandate at least mitigates the transmission as does social distancing. Yet, a more permanent solution needs to be undertaken to protect children in the classroom. An all-out effort needs to be instituted to protect children not only from COVID-19 but harm from other illnesses like the flu or from unclean air.
Protecting children should be the first priority but right behind it is the need to implement good air circulation for vulnerable populations like the elderly in nursing homes. The silence is deafening from state regulators on mandating safer air circulation systems. In quoting the Bloomberg article, I agree with its conclusion that two years ago, not many policy-makers had “quality of building ventilation” on their list of priorities. The pandemic has put it at the top of the list. It’s far past time to address air quality.
Violet is an attorney and former state attorney general.