Keeping schools safe during COVID-19: Improving airflow and circulation with outside air

Oregon Health Authority (OHA) and the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) have recommended layered health and safety measures for the protection of all children and staff in Oregon schools. How much protection do these measures provide?

Every layer matters. By improving airflow and circulation with outside air, schools can make sure that COVID-19 virus droplets are dispersed and diluted by fresh air. Also, filtration of indoor air helps remove airborne particles than can contain the COVID-19 virus.

How improved airflow and circulation help prevent the spread of COVID-19

Airborne articles containing the COVID-19 virus from an infected person can travel greater than six feet, especially the smaller particles that come from breathing, talking, laughing, shouting, singing, coughing, and sneezing. These smaller particles can:

  • Move throughout an entire room or indoor space.
  • Stay in the air after a person has left the room, for minutes to hours in some cases.

The particles spread between people more easily indoors because the particles can become concentrated indoors if there is no adequate ventilation or filtration. Outdoors, dilution by air movement can quickly reduce concentration. Increasing airflow and circulation indoors helps reduce concentration in the same way. The lower the concentration, the less likely particles can:

  • Be inhaled into the lungs;
  • Contact the eyes, nose, and mouth; or
  • Fall from the air to gather on surfaces.

Reducing the concentration of COVID-19 virus particles reduces the risk of exposure and infection.

Ways Oregon schools are improving airflow and circulation

In Oregon’s Ready Schools, Safe Learners Resiliency Framework for the 2021-22 School Year, ODE and OHA strongly advise schools to ensure effective ventilation and improve the indoor air quality in schools by:

  • Increasing the amount of fresh outside air that comes indoors;
  • Exhausting indoor air outdoors; and
  • Cleaning the air that is recirculated indoors with effective filtration methods (e.g., HEPA filters) to remove virus-containing particles from the air.

This is done in many ways, such as:

  • Opening classroom windows and doors during the day
  • Moving classes outside when weather permits
  • Reducing the number of people in a room
  • Using child-safe fans and air purifiers
  • Making changes to the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) or air filtration systems
  • Keeping the ventilation system running all day
  • Opening or cracking school bus windows a few inches to improve air circulation

When students and staff are correctly wearing well-fitting masks and practicing physical distancing in ventilated spaces, the risk of exposure to COVID-19 particles is even lower.

What to do if you have concerns about airflow and circulation at your local schools

All Oregon school districts have posted their current COVID-19 safety protocols, which explain how they are following the Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance. You can find links to information for your school district on ODE’s Ready Schools website.

If you believe a school is not in compliance with Oregon’s Ready Schools, Safe Learners guidance, you can file a named or confidential complaint with Oregon OSHA at 1-833-604-0884 or online. School safety and other COVID-19 school related questions can be answered by emailing ODE.

The best protection: COVID-19 vaccines

All three COVID-19 vaccines are extremely effective in preventing severe COVID-19 infection leading to hospitalization. The Pfizer vaccine is available in two forms for children:

  • Pediatric form for children ages 5 through 11
  • Adult form for children ages 12 through 17

If you care for children aged 5 years or older, visit OHA’s Find a COVID-19 Vaccine in Oregon web page to schedule their vaccine appointment today.