Milwaukee Public Schools are back open for in-person learning for most students willing to attend (high school freshman, sophomores and juniors who are not failing any classes are the exceptions), and while there has been quite a bit of discussion about rules like social distancing and mask-wearing, arrival/dismissal procedures, and cleaning protocols, it seemed like a good time to look at what the district is doing in terms of air handling, a key component to indoor safety during the pandemic.
According to MPS Manager of Design & Construction Sean Kane – who is also the parent of students at multiple MPS schools – the district’s schools have been heeding guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers.
“When the pandemic hit, we really took a look at how things are being operated,” Kane said. “(In February) we had an outside consultant take a look at some of our buildings, to (get) a true assessment, an unbiased opinion of how things are doing.
“We were doing a lot of things right, and (the consultants said) we were going in the right direction. It was an outside party; very helpful to kind of give us the baseline: 'OK, here's some things we've been doing, but maybe there's some more things we could be doing.'”
Kane said he had also reached out to another large school district and to the City of Milwaukee, “to check things, get a good gauge of how others are doing things, and they're doing a lot of similar things.”
One of the first steps taken by the district was to amp up the amount of outside air brought in by HVAC systems as much as possible without overburdening those systems.
“We are running our ventilation systems two hours before and two hours after the building is occupied and we are changing all filters at a lot higher rate,” said Kane.
“If we're able to upgrade the filtration without overburdening the system, we’re doing that, too. We have staff in our repair division creating filter racks to make bigger, thicker, upgraded filters.”
In February, The New York Times reported that an act as simple as opening windows can be key to making classrooms safer during the pandemic, and New York City mandated that at least one operable window be open in every classroom at all times, including during winter.
In simulations done by the newspaper with air flow consultants, a single open window was enough to provide four of the six total air exchanges per hour that experts recommended.
Although MPS has not mandated classroom windows be kept open, it has recommended it, and Kane says that work orders were expedited to ensure the option was available to teachers.
Anecdotally, students returning to my child’s classroom were instructed to bring a warm sweater or sweatshirt because windows would be open there at all times.
All classrooms and a number of other spaces in each school have also been equipped with AeraMax Pro air purifiers manufactured by Fellowes, which claims the units, “have shown a 99.99 percent airborne reduction of a coronavirus surrogate within 60 minutes of operation.”
“We originally started using those for isolation rooms and then expanded into putting them in all the classrooms,” said Kane. “We've been putting them into multiple occupied spaces, such as cafeterias, gyms, libraries, maybe the main office. We're allowing the principal or school leader to use their discretion in how they want to distribute those (within the building).
“As you can imagine with the pandemic, everyone was trying to purchase these units across the nation, probably across the world. It was quite challenging at times, but ... we got enough of them.”
Kane said that these units are meant to enhance other efforts.
“They are a good supplement to purify the air,” he said, “and to the amount of PPE that has been introduced in each classroom where staff has an N95 mask, face shield, (desks have) Plexi barriers, we've got the air purifiers, they got gowns, they got gloves, they’ve got disinfectant, etc., plus making those adjustments to the ventilation systems.”
Asked about the wide variety of building ages in the district, in which the oldest operating schoolhouse dates to 1884 and in which there are portions of schools built as recently as about five years ago, Kane said that older and newer buildings each bring their own challenges, but that folks shouldn’t assume older buildings are lagging.
“Sometimes people see an old building, they assume that it has the original ventilation from the 1800s, which is not the case,” he said. “They’ve been upgraded over the years, but sometimes people don't believe that. So we’ve got to work with the optics that we’re trying to present, that we do have safe and clean buildings, especially with ventilation.”
Sometimes older systems, before energy efficiency was as valued as today, he said, actually exchange more air than newer systems, which may balance efficiency with exchange capacity.
And, I pointed out – as a former window monitor in my 1920s-era school building as a child – many vintage schoolrooms are blessed with copious windows that open from both the top and the bottom, versus more recent buildings that tend to have smaller windows with less opening capacity.
Training building staff has also been part of the equation.
“We worked with the building operators,” said Kane, “about how they're monitoring these systems, making sure they're working and then working with the repair division to make sure if there's anything that needs to be repaired or adjusted. Again, making sure we have proper ventilation in the building.
“We really took this to heart and obviously having a safe and clean environment is very important for staff, our students and community.”
All of the lessons learned and the equipment and process changes that have been made over the past year will have a lasting impact, said Kane.
“I think for everybody that handles facilities – it could be through a school district or through a government agency, etc. – it made you take another look of how you're running your buildings.”
Finally, there’s the million-dollar (or more) question. Has the district received funding to help pay for the new equipment, system upgrades and other work?
“There was the funding source through the federal government and we've been working to utilize dollars from that,” Kane said, “and right now there are other federal packages out there that MPS is looking to pursue.
“We are trying to pull together a very big comprehensive plan working with our departments – from design to construction to maintenance to repair to our building operations – and other departments in the district and working with the superintendent and the senior team to see how we can continue to move forward and move the needle in improving the ventilation and mechanical systems across the district.
“There's the opportunity to obtain this funding, and it definitely will help us be in a better position to keep pursuing these types of things in the future.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.