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'Students perform better': Schools look to improve HVAC air quality as COVID protocols change

New COVID-19 guidance eased up on masks and social distancing. School leaders now say the focus is on improved ventilation and airflow.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The first week of school is underway for most students in the Charlotte area. 

Mecklenburg County is still in the CDC’s high COVID-19 community level, but this school year, many of the COVID-19 protocols students and staff grew used to in the last couple of years are no longer in place.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, and other districts in the area, have fallen in line with the CDC guidelines. Those newer guidelines eased up on quarantining and social distancing. Masks are still optional and welcome for students and teachers who want to wear one.

District officials say over the summer there was a focus on air quality in the classroom.

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Masking in the classroom, socially distanced desks and switches to remote learning are in the history books for now, and the pandemic taught valuable lessons about ventilation and the role of air quality in schools. 

“The pandemic has certainly brought indoor air quality to focus but it’s something that has been a concern for a long time," Karen Cooper with Honeywell said. "Obviously it impacts the load of particulates in the room and can increase if there is a virus or if there's some type of bad air. If you don't have ventilation, it just stays there."

There’s federal funding available to schools nationwide to make these types of improvements. CMS has utilized some of the money already. District officials said they've taken steps to improve air quality in every building. Those measures include upgraded air filters and exhaust systems to increase air circulation. 

“Duct cleaning has been a priority this summer to ensure we have better air quality and in our hallways as well, to have better airflow from the outside so we don’t have a closed system,” Hugh Hattabaugh, the interim superintendent, said Monday.

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Honeywell, which is based in Charlotte, has been working with schools across the country to implement these changes and set students up for success in the safest environment possible.

“Students perform better, teachers perform better,” Cooper said. “It has been shown many times that if you have good air quality you reduce absenteeism. You don’t have to worry about your teachers being out, but your students are there and they’re learning better. It affects if you have asthma or respiratory challenges, then certainly better air quality can reduce the impact those have on you as a person.”

CMS officials say there are plans for further improvements with remaining federal funding. In all, they’ve gotten 3 rounds of money totaling $491 million in federal funding. The bulk of it has to be used by September 2024.

Contact Chloe Leshner at cleshner@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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