Francis Koster: Be creative to rescue student education, slow virus

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 20, 2020

By Francis Koster

Chances of catching COVID-19 are 18 times higher if you are exposed to someone who has it while you are indoors compared to being outdoors.

This is because the virus particles do not blow away like they would if you were both outside.  If you are in a modern building with a new air conditioning system, the danger is less because it was designed bring in oxygen rich fresh air frequently. If you are unlucky enough to work in an old building, the virus concentration grows hourly as the infected folks near you continue to breathe it out.

This infection is spread by people who do not know they are infected and for a 10 day period unknowingly infect others until symptoms begin to show up. Every unknowing but infected person appears to infect one other person during that period.

More than half of all American K-12 schools (public and private) are 45 years old or older and do not have the ability to bring in oxygen rich air or discard classroom air containing the virus. This means that unless we do something when schools re-start, more than half of the nation’s schools are highly likely to increase COVID-19 spreading among teachers, staff and students. Research also shows that student academic performance is reduced one or two letter grades when there is not adequate fresh air in a classroom, so kids in these older buildings suffer two blows to their future life success.

This entire school year has been impacted by school closings, schedule changes and unfamiliar on-line classes. Student learning is estimated to be less than 70% of what would have been expected for school year 2020-21.

Keeping kids out of school to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is driving our society crazy.  Letting them (and their teachers) go back to old buildings that cannot bring in fresh air under today’s circumstance would be equally crazy. And vaccinations will not help us evade this awful choice – none is expected to be ready for children under 12 until summer of 2021, and vaccinating 53 million kids will take months longer.

We should anticipate calls for a vastly expanded 2021 summer school to help the kids catch up.

In North Carolina, summer is when schools close their windows and depend on their air conditioning for comfort. And if air conditioning systems in old buildings only lower temperature but do not bring in fresh air, we will have another national explosion of sickness.

The situation is worse than you think. Even if your school has modern air conditioning, there is little guarantee that it is working as designed. Inspections of schools in Raleigh, Rowan and Cabarrus counties have all found modern school air conditioning systems that have had their fresh air intake reduced to lower energy costs. Even schools built with the capability to bring in fresh air using computerized timers have had this disabled by maintenance staff who are not comfortable or skilled when working with modern sophisticated computer-driven systems.

There are several steps that can be taken — some of them outside the box of routine school system thinking.  First, schools could recruit skilled parents who work in air conditioning industries who could act as “first responders” for a volunteer work day to identify schools with inadequate fresh air. They could also make sure some windows can be opened and have screens so fresh air can be allowed in. Second, school systems can hire outside air conditioning auditors to check everything out. Third, to get the kids out of old buildings with no ability to bring fresh air in, consider working out a short-term arrangement with neighboring churches that have more modern Sunday school buildings that sit unused much of the time or shopping centers with lots of now-closed, large stores and use those for the summer.  Fifth, as federal and state legislators design COVID relief packages, lobby them for money to upgrade the air conditioning systems in old school buildings, giving them and the people who occupy them a new lease on life.

As you probably know, the captain of the Titanic ignored warnings of icebergs ahead, failed to alert the lookouts and sank the boat, killing thousands.  Our schools are occupied by one in five Americans every school day. Once full-time school is back in session, half of those (30 million people) are in hazardous buildings. These people are on the Titanic, and I am alerting you that an iceberg is six months away.

Koster, who lives in Kannapolis, spent most of his career as chief innovation officer in one of the nation’s largest pediatric health care systems.