New HVAC ducts in the CTE building at McKay High School on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

A hot market for heating and ventilation equipment is proving challenging for local schools.

Salem-Keizer School District officials have tweaked ventilation settings and added new air filters to schools, but so far haven’t made significant upgrades to local schools’ heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in response to the Covid pandemic.

Some ventilation upgrades planned before the pandemic, like an overhaul at McKay High School, have also been delayed because parts are unavailable or slow to arrive.

And though the district received about $152 million in federal relief to respond to the Covid pandemic, so far little of that money has been spent or set aside for HVAC system improvements.

Ventilation and airflow are among the mitigation measures scientists and health authorities say are crucial to preventing the spread of Covid inside schools.

Read more: How Salem schools are opening windows, filtering air to limit Covid spread as classes return

To date, the district has focused on optimizing existing ventilation systems at most schools by increasing the amount of outdoor air coming in and the speed at which air is cycled in and out of rooms.

District officials have spent about $610,000 in federal relief money on free-standing filters for rooms in schools with poor ventilation, as well as filters for building systems, said Suzanne West, who oversees federal grants. About 600 HEPA air filters are in spaces like school offices and teacher break rooms in schools around the district.

The bulk of the district’s federal relief money has been set aside for other costs, including hiring more teachers, social workers and other employees to help students catch up after a year of online classes, as well as technology costs and hiring additional school nurses to help monitor and trace Covid cases in schools.

Those funds were part of three separate federal relief packages.

Thirty-five district schools are receiving HVAC improvements as part of the $620 million school construction package voters approved in 2018, though not all are aimed at improving ventilation. Projects include control panel upgrades, adding cooling in some rooms, and overall system improvements, according to a list provided to Salem Reporter.

In March, the district revised its HVAC operating guidelines, saying it would assess buildings where system upgrades were needed and develop a timeline and plan to update those systems.

Another $500,000 has been set aside for that assessment, but it has yet to take place.

Joel Smallwood, the district’s director of construction and maintenance services, said he expects the assessment to begin at the end of the calendar year and last about six months.

His office will receive updates school by school as the assessment takes place. He said evaluation would focus on schools that haven’t had major HVAC improvements as part of the 2018 construction package. That assessment could lead to future upgrades.

He said the delay is in part because the district’s construction and maintenance workers have been at capacity planning and executing the construction work already planned before the pandemic hit.

“We’re certainly looking at it, we’re certainly working on it. I don’t think we’re quite where we want to be in some of that process,” Smallwood said.

About half the HVAC improvements planned pre-pandemic are complete, with the remainder in progress or scheduled for 2022 and 2023.

Several schools have had more extensive HVAC work added to planned projects, Smallwood said.

That includes adding a complete HVAC system overhaul to the expansion of McKay High School, budgeted for $6.4 million. Though the McKay renovation was largely completed this fall, the HVAC portion likely won’t be completed until spring because of delays receiving needed parts, Smallwood said.

Filters are rated on a scale called Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value, or MERV, with a value from 1 to 20. A higher number means the filter can trap smaller particles.

The federal Environmental Protection Administration says filters rated MERV 13 and higher can generally capture virus particles. State guidelines recommend schools use at least MERV 13 where possible.

Once installed, the McKay system will be able to handle MERV 13 filters, Smallwood said.

Planned construction at Schirle Elementary School also had a more extensive HVAC upgrade added, Smallwood said, budgeted for $2.2 million.

Those costs will be paid through extra money earned from grants and bond sales as part of the construction program, not federal Covid relief. Smallwood said that’s because federal money requires school districts to use follow federal contracting rules on design and construction, and the district had already planned school improvements under state contracting rules, which are different.

“All of our existing agreements, like our bond contractors and our bond architects, were selected under a set of rules that met all the state requirements, because that's all we had to meet,” Smallwood said. “There was so much already going on in our work that we felt we were making progress in where we needed to be without having (federal money).”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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