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Fritz Albert (left); Audobon Society
Walsh Construction
schools.forhealth.org
2020 06 30 (2)

Uncertain Summer Will School Us All

June 30, 2020
EDITOR'S NOTE: As summer arrives, setbacks in subduing the pandemic have upended most plans, especially for the coming school year.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Such simple, circular phrasing may seem innocuous, but sometimes it can take on the darker tone of the famously opaque Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”

Well, if nothing else, 2020 has been the most “interesting” time any of us has ever seen. And it’s only half over! Indeed, the more things that have changed this year—from the economic slowdown and jobsite shutdowns to record jobs losses and the mass migration to online everything—the global COVID-19 pandemic has relentlessly stayed the same, at least in the U.S. 

At press time, the Coronavirus had already claimed more than 125,000 American lives, and infected more than 2.5 million of us. Most alarming, the painstaking progress achieved against the virus in several states was being offset by alarming setbacks in others where overly optimistic reopening steps were being reversed.

Add in 24/7 national political turmoil and widespread social unrest and, well, forecasts shifted overnight. On June 24, Dr. Kermit Baker, chief economist for the American Institute of Architects, said, “There are growing signs of activity beginning to pick up in some areas, but others are seeing a pause as pandemic concerns continue to grow… A large portion of the design and construction industry remains mired in steep cutbacks as many businesses and organizations are still trying to figure out what actions make sense in this uncertain economic environment.”

An understatement, by any measure.

“Even as state and local areas re-open and bans on construction activity in Boston, New York City, and other areas are lifted, the sector will have to contend with digging itself out from a deep economic recession,” added Richard Branch, chief economist for Dodge Data & Analytics. “While the overall economy most likely hit bottom in May, the recovery will be slow since nearly 20 million jobs have been lost since February. The second half of 2020 will be a slog and gains will be modest over the short term.”

Even so, one thing that actually is certain this summer is that schools will be reopening in some form next month, which presents multiple industries with unprecedented challenges. And the role of HVACR engineers in creating healthy indoor environments in educational facilities will be absolutely critical. Occupant safety will be of paramount concern for all students, parents, teachers, and administrators when fall classes resume. And they will turn to our industry for reassurance.

For its part, ASHRAE continues to churn out an impressive array of necessary emergency resources for all markets. For schools, I also want to call your attention to an additional document just released in June. Entitled, “Risk Reduction Strategies for Reopening Schools,” the Harvard School of Public Health’s new special report on COVID-19 is available for free at schools.forhealth.org. Its Buildings section begins:

Healthy building strategies that improve air quality and clean surfaces should be incorporated as part of a layered defense against COVID-19. For improving indoor air quality, we recommend prioritizing control strategies – ventilation, filtration, supplemental air cleaning – and verifying system performance regularly. For more detailed and technical guidance, we recommend reviewing the materials produced by the ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force. Schools should work with facilities managers and outside professionals to tailor these recommendations for their unique building systems.

So, you are essential. Planning is in high gear right now. If you don’t already have work in this market, think about pivoting. Chances are there’s a public or private school near you looking for help. So, it may be summer, but it’s still “all hands on deck!”

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