The U.S. Department of Education on Friday highlighted ways colleges can use federal emergency aid to improve ventilation in their buildings, a key strategy in mitigating the spread of the coronavirus.
The department pointed out in a new memo that funds allocated to institutions through the last major relief package, the American Rescue Plan, can be used for this purpose. Colleges received about $40 billion in direct aid, though a large portion of it must go to help struggling students.
While the pandemic is no longer at the peak it once was in the U.S., colleges will still be evaluating their safety measures for the fall, particularly as coronavirus case numbers are again starting to rise across the nation and more transmissible variants spread.
Long before coronavirus vaccines started being widely administered in the country, public health agencies made recommendations on improving building ventilation, as the virus is thought to primarily spread through airborne respiratory droplets.
The memo Friday draws attention to recommendations for schools from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Environmental Protection Agency. They include bringing in as much outdoor air as possible and using heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems to maximize ventilation.
Colleges should open windows whenever it is safe to do so, service or upgrade HVAC systems to industry standards, and set them to bring in as much outdoor air as possible, the memo states.
Institutions should also communicate with students, employees and their communities clearly about the steps they are taking to address ventilation. The department suggested holding walking tours with some of these key groups and detailing ventilation efforts on colleges' websites.
The document states that colleges can use federal aid to inspect, test and maintain ventilation systems. They can also purchase portable filtration units, fans, equipment to run outdoor classes and carbon dioxide monitors.
Schools can use federal funds to repair doors or windows to allow fresh air to be brought in. And the funds can be used to account for potential increased heating and cooling costs resulting from using these systems more.
While more than half of colleges planned to either have primarily online or hybrid learning last fall, many institutions now are expecting a return to in-person instruction. But these plans often hinge on campus populations being vaccinated and having other mitigation efforts in place.