COVID-19 and Schools

HVAC Flaw Might Have Led to Pa. Elementary School COVID Outbreak

Late last month, eight second-grade students from a single classroom at Penn Valley Elementary School in the Lower Merion School District near Philadelphia, Pa., tested positive for coronavirus. Officials are calling it the first instance of significant in-school transmission in the district. Because of the number of students affected, staff conducted an investigation and discovered a potential cause for the spread.

The LMSD Operations Department assessed the HVAC system of the classroom in question and found that a portion of the ductwork in the ceiling “was far too closed, allowing only (approximately) 30% of the maximum amount of fresh air it should have into this specific room,” said Terry Quinlan, the district’s lead supervisor of school health and student safety. Quinlan added that, with the current information, the district “cannot say definitively whether the diminished fresh airflow contributed to the outbreak; however, it could be a factor.”

The Montgomery County Office of Public Health (MCOPH) noted that the spread could also be due in part to a variant strain of COVID-19, “citing both the rapid spread within the class and the fact that two vaccinated family members of impacted students have also tested positive,” according to the district website.

All members of the second-grade class in question have been in quarantine since April 16. The district is in the process of performing indoor air quality tests at all buildings.

Lower Marion School District spokesperson Amy Buckman had no comment on improper social distancing might have contributed to the spread. However, she said that classrooms across the district are spacing students at least three feet apart in accordance with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, and that “this is the only outbreak impacting this number of students that we’ve seen.”

Quinlan said that district ventilation systems exceeded all standards prior to the pandemic and had been upgraded since then. MERV 13 filters have been installed throughout the district, as well as bipolar ionization devices in larger spaces.

About the Author

Matt Jones is senior editor of Spaces4Learning. He can be reached at [email protected].