To fight COVID-19 spread, Shawnee Mission Schools is spending nearly $800,000 to install heavy-duty air machines and scrubbers

The Defendair 500 Air Scrubber, pictured, is a type of negative air machine SMSD plans to purchase for use in buildings this fall.

The Shawnee Mission School District is purchasing dozens of heavy-duty negative air machines and air scrubbers to put into school buildings this fall, to tamp down on the spread of infectious airborne particles amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The Board of Education this week unanimously approved the purchase of 140 HEPAFORCE 1100 Negative Air Machines and 40 Defendair HEPA 500 Air Scrubbers. With installation, the total cost is projected at slightly more than $793,000.

District administrators say the equipment will be paid for out of the roughly $2.6 million in federal CARES Act relief funds the district has received.

“It may be a bit of a stretch to think we’d get these all installed by the start of school [on Sept. 8], but we’re talking with all our suppliers,” Bob Robinson, the district’s Director of Facilities, told the board Monday.

Part of the problem, he said, is that there is now high demand for such industrial-grade filtration and air-cleaning machinery amid the pandemic. Negative air machines and air scrubbers are typically used on job and construction sites to help mitigate against toxic asbestos particles, mold and mildew, and in hospitals to help create more sterile environments.

“Negative air is something you’d never consider in a school setting prior to this,” Robinson said.

How the machines will be used

Negative air machines work by creating low air pressure in an enclosed space, making it harder for air particles — including, potentially, infectious pathogens — to flow out of that area. Air scrubbers clean and purify air and are often used in homes and businesses in order to prevent the effects of allergens, like mold and pollen.

The heavy-duty negative air machines and air scrubbers are expected to decrease the spread of infectious airborne particles in school buildings and will be used in a variety of school areas, including high-traffic zones. Above the foyer at Lenexa Hills Elementary.

Robinson said the district plans on installing negative air machines and air scrubbers in nurses’ offices and so-called “isolation rooms” across the district. In his proposal to the board, Robinson warned that getting the machines delivered by early September could be delayed because “lead times continue to lengthen due to ongoing pandemic effects on manufacturing and installation.”

Director of Operations and Maintenance Tyler Clubb told the board the district is also planning to upgrade filters on HVAC systems throughout the district. He also said they are looking into getting even heavier-duty filters to be installed in high-traffic hallways, nurses’ offices and in other spaces where air circulation is key to help prevent the potential spread of COVID-19, like band and choir rooms.

District leaders are finalizing a wide-ranging reopening plan for the fall, even as COVID-19 trend data in Johnson County remains worrying and could impact when students return to in-person learning. The Johnson County Department of Health and Environment is expected next week to release its final guidelines for how fully schools should reopen when classes start after Labor Day.

As of Thursday, Johnson County was reporting a 10.7% rolling average rate for new positive cases over the previous 14 days. That’s well above the 5% threshold recommended for schools to fully reopen.

The county is also seeing an average of roughly 92 new cases per day, down from a peak of more than 150 in early July.

Editor’s Note: This story and its headline have been updated to reflect that the total cost of both purchasing and installing the new negative air machines and air scrubbers is nearly $800,000. An earlier version implied that the machines themselves made up that entire cost.