Private schools look to new air filtration systems to limit virus spread in classrooms

Posted July 17, 2020 5:50 p.m. EDT
Updated July 17, 2020 9:20 p.m. EDT

— A group of private schools in the Triangle is upgrading its ventilation systems, and school officials say the change could prevent the spread of coronavirus when classes start next week.

"We want to make sure that Thales schools are as healthy as possible," said Brandon Hafner, manager of corporate operations for CaptiveAire Systems, which produces commercial kitchen ventilation systems and is owned by Bob Luddy, who founded the Thales Academy chain.

CaptiveAire plans to put a dedicated outdoor air system, or DOAS, in each Thales building. Unlike traditional HVAC systems that recirculate about 90 percent of indoor air, DOAS is capable of bringing in 100 percent outside air.

"It takes a building from a high level of contaminants to a reasonable level of contaminants in just a few hours," Hafner said. "We know that recirculated air is an unhealthy environment for people to be in."

Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease specialist at the UNC School of Medicine, said a special air filtration system might help reduce the risk for spreading coronavirus but the science isn't really clear.

"There's something that we see a lot of in the hospital, which we'd call an abundance of precaution. So, even though we don't know for sure that something works, sometimes we do things just to be really over protective," Wohl said.

He noted that experts have debated for years over effective ways to combat transmitting flu virus, and there aren't any answers yet when it comes to coronavirus.

Wohl also said an air filtration system won't help if social distancing and other precautions aren't followed in the schools.

"One concern I do have is that, if we do put in a really nice, fancy-dancy filtration system, will we then think, well, we could not wear masks?" he said. "I think there could be a false level of security. We wouldn't want that. I would rather have masks on me [and] on other people around me."

Thales Academy officials said they have an extensive protocol to prevent the spread of the virus, including daily temperature checks and symptom surveys, social distancing, frequent hand washing and no shared supplies.

Hafner said "fresh air will be the way of the future," and the DOAS units will help Thales students and staff.

"We want a building that is highly energy efficient, so we seal up a building to make sure the heat can't get in and out," he said. "But when we a seal a building completely, we trap all of these contaminants inside a building, So a dedicated outside air system – what we are installing now – is certainly the way of the future."

Classes at the schools start Monday, and Thales will also offer an online option for students who might be at high risk from the virus or who remain uneasy about returning to school during the pandemic.

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