Jake Jensen: How Utah is making it safer to breathe in classrooms

A unique partnership provided the necessary expertise.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Second grade teachers Cami Beacham, left, and Amy Bartlett talk during the first week of classes at Desert Sky Elementary, Eagle Mountain’s new elementary school on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023.

A recent Tribune article reprinted from the New York Times, “Why Haven’t We Made It Safer to Breathe in Classrooms?” critiqued the results of a federally funded program intended to improve school classroom air quality and make schools safer by reducing the transmission of COVID and other respiratory diseases. Despite ample federal funds, many schools struggled to make effective air quality improvements due to the little guidance they were given from the CDC and the EPA on what products would be most effective to install, leaving them on their own to decipher between meaningful and cost effective changes, and the sales pitches of eager purification companies.

Nationally only 34% of school districts made upgrades to A/C and ventilation systems, and only an additional 28% attempted to install portable air purifiers in each room. Many states made the mistake of purchasing air purifiers with “ionizing” features that potentially release ozone, another hazardous pollutant, undermining the health benefits of the purifiers.

Fortunately, Utah did make it safer to breathe in classrooms. A unique partnership was formed between the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE) that provided the necessary expertise to make the program work.

Four years ago, the extensive research on air pollution’s harm to brain development and brain function prompted UPHE to launch a public campaign to persuade Utah’s legislature to place air purifiers in the state’s classrooms. Soon after, the COVID-19 pandemic emerged and the ability of air purifiers to capture viruses and reduce disease transmission added even more urgency to the campaign. When federal money became available to the DHHS, knowing the value of having qualified physicians direct the program, staff from DHHS solicited UPHE’s help.

In the last 16 months, that partnership has now placed air purifiers in 70% of schools and more than 50% of pre-K centers statewide, with more than 30,000 air purifiers and 119,000 filters through the funding. Nearly 700,000 Utah children, from pre-K through high school, will be breathing cleaner air at school. Those involved in Utah’s partnership actually helped other states to implement their own program.

UPHE selected purifiers that were quiet, appropriately sized for classrooms and, most importantly, had the capability of capturing the smallest, and therefore the most harmful, particles. The units chosen are capable of capturing particles down to the size of 0.1 microns, which includes airborne viruses and the respiratory droplets and aerosols that can carry them.

We instructed teachers not to use the ionizing feature criticized in the article unless the particulate pollution was extremely high. Schools were allowed to order up to six of these HEPA filters for each unit, decreasing some of the future maintenance costs.

UPHE staff contacted every school in the state, in most cases multiple times, either through the district or individually. We reached out to teachers, parents and administrators explaining this unique opportunity. We placed the orders with the manufacturer and arranged for delivery to the schools. As school employees are already overworked, key to the success of the project was making the whole process as easy as possible. UPHE arranged for a setup manager to come out to the school to unpack the purifiers, recycle the waste and educate staff on how to use the purifiers. Though many schools opted not to request set up assistance, each purifier still included specific instructions that we created and relevant information about how to operate the units and the importance of turning on the purifiers each day.

It’s unfortunate that so many states were unable to take full advantage of this federally funded, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But Utah did much better. Careful planning by DHHS staff and UPHE allowed the state of Utah to provide a school environment that will protect childhood brain development, improve academic achievement and overall student health and will help curtail the spread of respiratory diseases and maintain school attendance.

But there is still more work to be done. About 250,000 children have been left out because their schools did not respond to our outreach. We hope the state can find an additional source of funds for this very important program to continue until every Utah child is breathing cleaner air.

Jake Jensen

Jake Jensen is the program coordinator for K-12 Schools for Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.