Saturday, September 2, 2023

Success with CR Boxes and CO2 Monitors in Classrooms!

About a year and a half ago, I presented to the local school board about the benefits of masks to filter air before it hits our lungs and of using Corsi-Rosenthal boxes to clean the air in classrooms: They're cheaper and much quieter than HEPAs, and we can make them ourselves! Nobody commented or suggested it be taken to staff for a response or anything. I stopped talking; they thanked me and moved on (my discussion of it here). Then as a trustee, I had access to all the big guns, but was still shot down at every attempt to get these simple, quiet, and efficient units in schools. Advocacy is clearly not my forte.

But Liesl McConchie did it!! 

She made a 50 minute video about her journey, and starts out by talking about all the barriers she faced: having CO2 monitors taken from her kids, schools refusing her donation of high quality HEPAs for every classroom in her school, being yelled at by school admin and blacklisted. Now she has CR boxes in every single classroom in her school in San Diego, California. She outlines the careful steps she took to get there cautioning that you can't just "vomit information" on people. 

Yup. I did that info-vomiting thing. 

I was only allowed to speak for ten minutes. I started with info on local lack of vaccinations and myths about herd immunity. I showed wastewater stats to show how prevalent it still is in our specific area. I pointed out that some other boards that have gone above and beyond. And I discussed the potential for Long Covid and how it affects the brain. Then I let them know the good news: it's not inevitable! We can fight it with masks and filtration. I compared clean air to clean water. I said that ventilation is additive. I showed that CR boxes are more effective than HEPA units as well as being cheaper and quieter and use about a quarter of the energy. And I questioned their continued refusal to use them for fire-hazard reasons despite the reality that an unattended coffee maker is more of a fire hazard than a CR box. 

To be fair, I tried her other steps first, but was unsuccessful, so just skipped them. I'm a step-skipper!

Here's her five step plan to get this to work: 

1. Build Relationships with Decision Makers: They must "trust that you have good intentions and that you're here to help. Get involved with other projects so they can see you as a helpful asset."

My principal hated me! I questioned the wisdom of some policies early on, and he made it clear that it was not my place to critique his decisions. I have no idea how I could have fixed that situation before continuing. A few months later, when I was trustee, the director made it clear that no teacher should ever be allowed to delegate at a board meeting! I make friends wherever I go! I think it's pretty clear that I'm not the best person for this job, but I'm still happy to help behind the scenes.

2. Identify Their Core Values: "When you understand what the decisions-makers care about, you can connect clean air to their goals (attendance rates, tests scores, equity, etc.)."

At different times I attached IAQ to attendance, test scores, and equity, but to no avail. The main concern of the board sometimes seems to be litigation, primarily concerns with lawsuits coming from anti-maskers, so CR boxes posed more of a problem than a solution. I suggested there could be lawsuits from pro-maskers, but that didn't seem to be nearly as much of a concern. Pro-maskers tend to be a quieter and more law-abiding group (possibly playing a long game).

3. Gather Data on Current IAQ: "Having concrete data from that specific facility will guide you in making appropriate recommendations."

I offered specific community data, but the reaction was, "Covid is practically endemic," as if endemic means safe.

4. Present Multiple Solutions to Improve IAQ: "Choices gives them the chance to make things better within their budgetary and other confines. . . . Position the decision-makers as the heroes who can make a difference."

Because I only had ten minutes, I just focused on masks and CR boxes. And I approached it with an incredulous tone since I was so baffled that CR boxes still aren't allowed. Big mistake! 

5. Train the Staff on Solution: "Staff must know why and how to use these systems with fidelity. Request 45-60 minutes with staff to give a brief workshop on how to maximize IAQ with current available systems. Use simple infographics to illustrate steps to improve IAQ."

I completely agree that everyone in the school needs to understand all this, but I can't imagine someone ever getting more than 10-15 minutes to speak to this. I went the route of emails to staff along the way, and they were largely met with derision (mixed with a few quiet thank-you along the way).

Her film outlines her final presentation to staff. 

She started by connecting filtering water to filtering air to show how it makes sense, and introduced herself as a mom, teacher, and best-selling author, which gave her a level of authority and credibility I can't possibly get slamming away on this little blog. I imagine that helped the successfulness of her initiative. 

She apologized to staff for the systemic failures for what we're living with right now. This should have been done years ago, and it's not their fault it wasn't, but now it's been added to their plate. She clarified that she's also advocating at other levels of government. She was upfront and honest, making it clear she was NOT talking about cleaning the air because of wildfire or pollen or dust, but specifically because of Covid. I appreciate that transparency.

The first half of the presentation was reasons people should care about Covid:

1. Illness: Many respiratory viruses are transmitted through the air, and she asked teachers about the disruption when they or their kids were sick from school, followed by a brief explanation of the difference between droplet and aerosol transmission: stomach flu spreads more with touch, Covid through aerosolized particles that can be in the air for hours

2. Equity: The mortality rate is far worse for people who are BIPOC and/or disabled. 

3. Long covid: Data shows that 20% experiencing Long Covid, even kids.     

4. Absent students: She used the lens of how much it affects funding when kids are chronically absent or withdraw from school, and, as a teacher, it's hard to try to teach students with rotating illnesses in the classroom. She had local stats showing that the dominant reason for absences is acute illness. I have no idea how to get those stats here.

5. Community: 70% of the spread of Covid starts with a child, and illness drops during school breaks. Schools are a dominant source of illness. As a caring community, we need to do our part to clean our indoor air to send less illness home to families.

The second half focused on things we can do about it, which are largely free and easy so we can all be healthy and equitable. 

She started with a great job of explaining ACH (air changes per hour) as the number of times that the total air volume in a room or space is completely removed and replaced in an hour. The CDC recommends 5 ACH and she says ASHRAE says 8, but at least one study I found suggests we need at least 12 ACH to make it safe if kids aren't required to wear a mask. 

She used Joey Fox's guide to WATCH for IAQ: Windows, Air movement, Thermostat, CO2 levels, and HEPA filter. I mentioned some of my concerns with presenting this to teachers back here, and I get to that again below. 

Using data from her own school (which was possibly only because of the strong relationship she had with the principal), she did the math (from Joseph Allen's guide) to show that the average classroom in their school has about 1.7 ACH when doors and windows were closed, so they're basically breathing each other's lung backwash! Just opening windows and doors raised that to 6 ACH, and she mentions the privilege of living in a temperate climate with windows in every classroom. 

Make sure the air is circulating with a ribbon on the register (tricky with 12' ceilings), and thermostats should be set to ON, not auto, but typically that's set by the board office. Most t-stats are set for temperature control, not pathogen control. She reminded them she's also fighting with the board to get that changed, since many schools upgraded to MERV 13 filters, but it does little if thermostats are set to auto. We need to see what that discussion looks like too.

Also having HEPAs on all day can give us an additional 3 ACH, so up to 9 ACH in her case. [ETA these were her calculations. Richard Corsi, who co-invented the CR box, says it can add 15-27 additional ACH!!] Everyone needs to know that HEPAs need to stay turned on, with all four sides exposed, and should be as close to the center of the room as possible. (CR boxes often have even higher CADR (clean air delivery rate) than HEPAs and are quieter and cheaper and use less energy.) But most teachers don't have HEPAs in their classroom or access to them. That's a board issue. Originally her HEPAs on offer were denied by the board. Her solution was to work with a teacher who begged the principal, and then she was able to get HEPA and CR boxes in. I'd like to know that that series of conversations looked like. How do you go from being totally denied to having a teacher say please and then it's all allowed?? It's like the South Park underwear trolls' plan of action:

People need to understand CO2 monitors: that CO2 is a proxy for viral load in the room and that it's best at 500 ppm or less. If it reads 800 ppm, it means 1 in 100 breaths are of someone else's exhaled air. By 2,400 ppm, it's 1 in 20 breaths. It's like the whole room sharing a drinking straw! Gross! She was able to get CO2 data from classes in her school to show people by getting permission from her child's teacher and then the principal. That's another barrier some parents face here; CO2 monitors still have to be snuck in. I'd like to hear more about how she shifted to having the CO2 monitor taken away from her child to be allowed to operate them. Again, WHAT DID THAT LOOK LIKE??

She believes this will all be regulated at some point, but it's better to be ahead of the curve to prevent more illness, long-term disability, and death. Absolutely!

I'm so glad this worked for her, but I have have two problems with it:

First, it took her two years to make any progress with all this. We don't have two years. Kids are getting sick with a brain-invasive disease now. Many are still dying:

Secondly, I still don't advocate putting it all on teachers. Many teachers aren't Covid activists or remotely Covid concerned and many have principals who are not supportive of mitigation measures. I was unceremoniously chewed out by a VP during a class for having a window open literally ½" when the CO2 in the room was over 2,000 ppm. I get that Liesl had similar pushback experiences, but it's a lot to ask teachers to put themselves in that position, especially if they're new and don't have a secure position, and especially when potential strike action is looming. 

I'd prefer to divide up the tasks to different target audiences, and narrow down the conversation to teachers to just what they can do, so as not to overwhelm them:

What Boards can be asked to do: 

  • Be fully transparent: Encourage CO2 monitors in classrooms, or at least openly allow them so parents, students, and teachers can collect data to assess their specific risk. If quality is a concern, then request that any crowdsourcing of data indicates what brand of CO2 monitor was used. Concern with CO2 monitors in classroom leads parents to think there's something to hide, and lead teachers to worry about getting in trouble instead of focusing on teaching the kids!
  • Recognize that ventilation is additive, so improving mechanical ventilation is great, but also having filtration units in every classroom is better! (Much of Liesl's ACH discussion really needs to be heard at this level.)
  • Revisit that insurance policy that questions the safety of CR boxes. THAT has to change! Threaten to switch insurance companies if necessary! (That is, if the insurance company is really the stopper.)
  • Direct principals to...

What Principals can be asked to do:
  • Calculate the ACH in your specific school or allow a teacher or parent to do the work for you. It's not rocket science; it's just math. It shouldn't take more than an hour. Make that information public.
  • Take 15 minutes in a staff meeting to allow a guest speaker to explain to staff what ACH is, how it's affected by windows and doors, and the importance of keeping the CR box running all day to improve the level of CO2 in the room. Explain what a CO2 monitor measures and what the numbers mean. And explain how N95 masks do work to stop transmission, and how important they are when IAQ isn't at 12 ACH, and when so many cases have no symptoms.
  • Encourage CO2 monitors for teachers to borrow to be able track daily changes in levels and learn what simple changes they can take in their specific classroom (e.g. open a window after lunch). 
  • Allow students to go outside for nutrition breaks.
What Teachers can be supported in doing:
  • Wear a mask (N95 or better) in class for your own health and to model it for kids. If that's not possible, then at least let masked students know you support them so they don't feel quite so alone. If that's not your forte, then at the very least stop any bullying that kids are facing for wearing masks.
  • Don't unplug or turn off the filtration unit in the room. Make sure it's plugged in and on.
  • Borrow a CO2 monitor for one typical day to see when numbers rise and fall (an Aranet 4 will track it for you; you don't have to watch it), and open windows or turn the filtration unit to high when CO2 tends to increase. Make it another task that a student can do or a class project to do together.
What Parents can be told:
  • Notifications can be sent home or put on the school website to clarify that Covid is still here along with RSV, strep, and typical colds and flu. Most cases of Covid are asymptomatic so anyone can be spreading it even if they feel perfectly healthy; it hangs in the air for hours and can cross a room in minutes, and it can cause serious long-term disability. A well-fitting N95, worn all day whenever indoors (eat lunch outdoors whenever possible), can dramatically reduce the risk of transmission.
  • Consider borrowing a CO2 monitor (Aranet 4) from a local library to send with your child to check the daily levels, and let your child's teacher and principal know if if you notice that levels become significantly elevated during the day. The more people checking the air quality of our classrooms, the more likely it will actually improve
What Students can be taught:

1 comment:

Marie Snyder said...

I saw that they were accepted, so I hope they end up getting put to good use somewhere! I have no idea if they'll make it to a classroom, but who knows what will be the thing that gets the board to turn a corner on this. I appreciate that they directed that initiative to the board office rather than directly to teachers.