Shawnee Mission Schools will upgrade air filters in buildings to help guard against COVID-19 spread

With many students back to learning in person full time, the Shawnee Mission School District has invested in heavy duty HVAC filters that can catch viral airborne particles in addition to dust and mold. Above, a student and teacher at Rhein Benninghoven Elementary in Shawnee. Photo credit Kyle Palmer.

The Shawnee Mission School District is upgrading air filters in schools’ HVAC systems in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19 for the remainder of this school year.

The move comes as the district returned middle and high school students for some on-site learning this week. Most elementary students also continue to attend school in person full time.

On Monday, the SMSD Board of Education approved using $134,000 in federal pandemic relief funds to purchase the higher grade air filters. The motion was approved as part of the board’s consent agenda and came with no discussion.

Higher MERV rated filters

Schools’ HVAC systems will now be outfitted with air filters with a rating of MERV 11, 13 or 14, which can filter out airborne viral particles, along with dust, mold and bacteria, better than the district’s current air filters.

The MERV scale runs from 1 to 16. The higher the rating, generally, the less particles are allowed through. (A disadvantage to higher rated filters is that they circulate air less efficiently, which can actually reduce air quality inside a building.)

Previously, the district had planned on buying MERV 8 filters, which can filter out dust and mold but are less likely to capture airborne viral particles and bacteria.

A memo presented to the board outlining the purchase detailed some of the other potential benefits of the higher grade filters:

“The upgraded filters are used to eliminate contaminants such as humidifier and lead dust, automobile emissions, welding fumes, legionella, milled flour, and nebulizer drops, in addition to larger particles like pollen, mold, pet dander, dust mites, carpet and textile fibers, inset debris, and sanding and spray paint dust,” the memo said.

Other precautions in place

Two rounds of new filters will be purchased, which will be rotated through schools’ HVAC systems through the remainder of this school year.

The district received roughly $2.6 million in federal pandemic relief funds and has allocated at least $1.96 million of that money.

In August, the district used $800,000 in federal aid to purchase and install heavy-duty negative air machines and scrubbers to help tamp down the spread of the coronavirus.

Schools continue to put other pandemic precautions in place, including requiring all students and staff wear masks inside buildings (except when eating) and remain socially distanced as much as possible.

The CDC has recommended schools have in-person learning as much as possible with mitigation protocols in place, due to the emotional and cognitive benefits kids get out of being in school.