Denver Public Schools spending $1.5 million to track air quality in classrooms

Denver Public Schools is taking steps to track the air quality in its classrooms by adding monitors in all of the district’s schools.

Air quality has become a major focus during the pandemic as researchers concluded ventilation can help slow the transmission of COVID-19, which is airborne. It’s also increasingly important as wildfire smoke often casts a haze over the city during the summer and other pollutants cause health issues, such as asthma, in children. 

“We should have been doing this a long time ago,” said Mark Hernandez, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, adding, “You don’t want to be at increased risk for allergens or wildfire smoke.”

DPS has been planning to improve air quality in its buildings for “a while,” but the district’s budget has prevented it from buying monitors until now, spokesman Javier Ibarra said.

“COVID helped prompt all of this,” he said. “(But) it’s a long-term goal.”

DPS is spending $1.5 million on the monitors and expects to finish installing them by Sept. 1. The district is using federal COVID-19 stimulus money, known as ESSER funds, to pay for the monitors, which are part of a broader $25 million effort to improve air quality in the city’s schools, Ibarra said.

A group of CU Boulder students with Hernandez installed sensors at Denver’s East High School on Thursday. About 10% of classrooms in every DPS school will have air quality monitors, although they can be moved around as needed.

The monitors, which are small, white boxes, do not improve air quality themselves and cannot detect the presence of virus-specific aerosols in a room. Instead, they allow school officials to track things like carbon dioxide levels and particulate matter in classrooms.

There’s a higher risk of getting COVID-19 when higher concentrations of carbon dioxide and particulate matter are present in a room — a sign that ventilation needs to be improved, Hernandez said.

If the levels are high in a classroom, the monitors will alert school staff that ventilation and filtration need to be improved, said Serene Almomen, chief executive officer and co-founder of Senseware, the Virginia-based company that makes the devices.

Then schools can respond by putting air purifiers in classrooms or even just opening doors or windows to improve ventilation, Hernandez said.

DPS isn’t the only district working to improve air quality in its classrooms during the pandemic. Senseware’s monitors are in roughly 500 school buildings across the U.S., including in the Boulder Valley School District and classrooms in Washington, D.C.

The focus on air quality comes more than a year since scientists confirmed the coronavirus was airborne, making indoor spaces riskier settings, though federal public health officials were slow to acknowledge and respond to the findings.

The trajectory of the pandemic remains murky. Transmission is high, but the increase in at-home testing is making it harder for public health officials to track how widely the virus is circulating in the community. A new variant of the virus, BA.5, has arrived and is breaking through immune systems more often. There is one sign of hope: the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Colorado dropped this week for the first time in the month.

It’s also going to be harder to track the spread of the virus in schools when students return this fall because, as of last week, Colorado’s health department has stopped publicly sharing data on COVID-19 outbreaks at K-12 schools.

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