Students have worn face masks in school for much of the past two school years to help stop the spread of Covid-19, but schools struggled with another important preventive measure: improving air quality.
That should become less of a problem soon.
Erie County will purchase a HEPA air filtration system for every classroom in all public, private and charter schools, County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz told editors and reporters of The Buffalo News this week. There are about 11,000 classrooms, he said.
"The best part about this is the top-of-the-line system, the Healthmate, is made right in Buffalo at Austin Air," Poloncarz said. "We are going to buy every single one of these at Austin Air, which will be a boon for our economy."
Austin Air has been in business since 1990, employing more than 100 employees in a 480,000-square-foot warehouse and manufacturing facility on Elk Street. Since the pandemic started, the company shipped out a couple of hundred thousand of their air purifying units, which are used by the military and in schools and hospitals.
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“Over the last few years, because of Covid, we’ve been very popular," said company president Lauren McMillan. “Now, we’re in a lot more small businesses and law firms as people return to work.”
Each air filter is square-shaped, powder-coated steel construction. Each filter lasts about five years. Replacements retail for $290, though schools would likely get a volume discount.
Each air filter contains 60 square feet of medical grade HEPA, which filters 99.97% of all particles that are 0.3 microns and larger and over 99% of particles over 0.1 micron, so it catches Covid particles. HEPA is an acronym for High-Efficiency Particulate Air.
“The idea is to lower the viral load in the room and thereby lower the exposure,” McMillan said.
The filters won't just filter out Covid-19 viruses, but other airborne illness-causing germs and pollutants, which should keep classroom students healthier, she said.
Poloncarz plans to outline the proposal to purchase the air purifiers Thursday as part of his State of the County address at the Buffalo Bills Fieldhouse in Orchard Park.
Erie County will use federal Covid-19 funding to pay for the air purifiers, which is estimated to cost $5 million to $6 million, according to the county.
Austin Air is on a pre-approved federal bid list.
It seems to be a sensible way for the county to invest its federal money on behalf of schools, said Michael Cornell, president of the Erie-Niagara School Superintendents Association and superintendent of Hamburg Central Schools.
"We certainly appreciate the County Executive's Office working with us to try and arrive at a way to invest the remainder of the federal money. Within the context of their limitations, this was the best way to spend it in a way that benefits schools for the longest time," Cornell said.
Improving ventilation in many schools has meant opening the windows. Some have been able to retrofit their heating and ventilation systems, but others have not.
For many schools, "it's just impossible to get a HEPA filtration system in place due to the age of the schools and the cost associated with putting a HEPA filtration system on a large facility, and then there's others that you really can't do because they're baseboard heat," Poloncarz said.
Poloncarz said he hopes the filtration systems will be in classrooms before the end of the year.
McMillan said the company has thousands of the units in stock. The county would send the purchase orders for schools that want them to Austin Air, which could transport the units directly to the schools.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the Austin Air Systems Elk Street facility.