Studying in COVID times

September 2020

This Monday marks the start of an atypical back-to-school period. COVID-19 has changed many things in our lives. Beyond the health crisis and social distancing, it has made us rethink the environmental quality of our surroundings. It is now time, or perhaps has been for some time, to think about where our children learn and develop.

Between 1958 and 1977, births in Spain exceeded 650,000 per year; at that time almost fourteen million children were born, 2.5 million more than in the previous twenty years and 4.5 million more than in the following twenty years.

Most of our classrooms are a legacy of historic buildings or schools that were built in the 70's and 80's, before the RITE (Thermal Installations Regulations) of 1998 came into force.

It is easy to sense that the healthiness of the classrooms is not the most suitable for a study environment. We all remember the intense drowsiness before leaving for break and the stuffy atmosphere on our return, forcing the next teacher to open the windows wide despite the draught freezing our ears.

This concern predates the pandemic: in 2019 inBiot monitored some schools in Navarra, the results of which showed the air renewal needs of the classrooms at the time:

Thermohygrometric comfort (temperature between 20 and 25ºC, and relative humidity between 40 and 60%) was limited to approximately 80% of the time the classrooms were occupied, and only 20% of the time of this "comfort" coincided with CO₂ levels below 1000ppm. On the other hand, formaldehyde and VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) were rising very worryingly in some plastics classes (with the use of glues and paints predictably) and with the cleaning service; although in this case, the pollutant was rapidly diluted. In other schools, occasional painting and repair work contributed VOCs to the indoor air, without thinking about or assessing whether it was adequately ventilated.

Our observations were not part of any study with sufficient statistical representation for a publication, but they are in line with some of the reflections submitted by COGITI to the COVID-19 Follow-up Working Committee at the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training.

It is particularly paradoxical to impose a strict protocol for the use of masks by students and teachers, when the environment does not comply with the minimum ventilation levels required by the RITE ( 12.5 l/s in schools and 20 l/s in daycare centers, with CO₂ limit values above the external concentration of 500ppm in schools and 350 ppm in daycare centers).

This subject was already failed in 2019. In 2020 the pandemic caught up with us. We confined ourselves to March and decided to leave it until September; and here we are, the day before the exam and without having studied.

In a previous post we proposed several tips to prevent COVID-19 in indoor spaces, based on a REHVA publication and early scientific studies pointing to the temperature and humidity ranges to which the virus is resistant. On 30 July, the Ministry for Ecological Transition and Ecological Challenge published "RECOMMENDATIONS FOR OPERATION AND MAINTENANCE OF AIR CONDITIONING AND VENTILATION SYSTEMS IN BUILDINGS AND PREMISES TO PREVENT THE PROPAGATION OF SARS-COV-2", which outlines the transmission routes of SARS-COV-2 and guidelines for reducing the risk of infection in indoor environments, with ventilation being the key prevention mechanism.

The letter sent by COGITI to the Ministry referred to above goes in the same direction, proposing VMC (Controlled Mechanical Ventilation)systems for classrooms as a measure to mitigate (not avoid) the risk of COVID-19 transmission in classrooms.

What can we do now?

First, accept that we have already suspended. There are neither the resources nor the time to get to design, tender and implement these facilities.                                                                                                                

We can, however, start somewhere: "what cannot be measured cannot be improved", according to Lord Kelvin, as the COGITI recalls in its paper.

We need to measure what the air quality is in the classroom. The introduction of continuous monitoring devices in the classrooms makes it possible to track the various parameters that define the air quality and the level of ventilation. Among them, the CO₂ is the perfect indicator of ventilation needs in real time and according to the occupancy level of the classrooms.

The information provided by this type of device makes it possible to educate about the need to ventilate, optimise the opening of windows, improve the regulation of air-conditioning systems and make a realistic forecast of future mechanical ventilation systems, establishing priorities for action according to the results.

We are facing a new and uncertain back to school, so let's work from the different sectors involved to technically guarantee that safety and health go hand in hand, ensuring healthy learning environments.

Studying in COVID times

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