Reflections on school energy and indoor air quality during a pandemic

Published on: 
21 Oct 2020
Deborah Heitman

The 2019–2020 Green School Scholars have been busy supporting their districts response to COVID-19. This fall, each of the five scholars are sharing how their work has prioritized sustainability as a core focus and how their successes have meant huge financial savings for their district, improved partnerships across the community, new assets at the schools and more.

The saying goes: “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” The global health crisis and school closures we have experienced this year because of COVID-19 has been difficult, to say the least. It has, however, revealed opportunities and even benefits for the Davenport Community School District in Scott County, Iowa.

This unprecedented time has taught us more about the important role that our buildings play in promoting health. Indoor environmental quality has always been a focus of the Davenport Community School District’s operations team, and it is even more important now that we know the coronavirus can spread through the air. In addition to reducing airborne transmission and risk of infection, studies have shown that adequate air ventilation can improve one’s ability to focus and can even raise test scores. Keeping our school buildings safe and our staff, students and community healthy during the pandemic requires a partnership between us all. Teachers and students can do their part to improve the air quality in their classrooms by ensuring air vents are never blocked by furniture, books or other items.

In spring 2020, when increasing concerns about COVID-19 meant that staff and students would not return to school after spring break, the district’s operations team saw an opportunity to “shut off” buildings and save significant money on water and energy bills. The district had been working for the past several years to reduce utility consumption through an online software tool called the Building Automation System (BAS) to change heating and cooling set points and turn off ventilation when school was not in session.  When schools closed, the district initially planned to use the BAS to put the buildings into “unoccupied” mode, in hopes of achieving significant energy cost savings.

However, when custodians were asked to report to buildings for cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting, and food and nutrition service staff were on-site preparing and distributing meals for kids, this plan was not feasible. For the health and safety of district employees, the building mechanical systems would remain on. Although this has meant less energy savings during a time when thousands of students were not in the buildings, the district has been able to eliminate waste by reducing runtime of equipment to match employee schedules, auditing equipment that is running when it shouldn’t be and tracking water use. This close monitoring and reduced operations at the schools has allowed Davenport Community Schools to save $317,234 on utilities this past school year.

The district’s operations team will continue to prioritize indoor air quality and health, but will also strive to balance energy consumption and the financial impact of increased ventilation. One of the most important long-term positives of this pandemic is that school buildings, in which occupants spend most of their day, have become even safer and healthier places for staff and students.

Learn more about COVID-19 and guidance for schools