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Clearing the Air in a Time of Consequence

July 29, 2020
EDITOR'S NOTE: As millions across the U.S. prepare to go back to school amid a global pandemic, the stakes truly have never seemed higher. Our industry is playing a vital role.

When you have been doing anything for more than 30 years, it’s hard not to grow a bit jaded and cynical. But it also gives you perspective when things are truly extraordinary. And I must say, as someone who has been writing about engineering in one form or another since 1987, I have never seen a moment quite like this one, especially as it involves our industry.

This month, as millions of students, teachers, administrators and buildings staff across the U.S. prepare to go back to school amid a still-active global pandemic, the stakes truly have never seemed higher. Of course, as the middle-aged, asthmatic spouse of an elementary school teacher and parent of a college senior, I also feel like I have real skin in this game, too.

So I have been acutely aware of the ongoing, often heated debate over how to restart U.S. education this fall, safely and effectively. For that reason, our August issue has tried to summarize and combine the latest and best scientific advice available, both medical and engineering, tailored for our audience of HVACR professionals. Many of you are also parents and grandparents of returning students, as well. So, in that sense, we all have skin in the game this anxious summer.

Of course, circumstances continue to change so rapidly regarding COVID-19, that even the best advice can soon seem outdated. On July 25, for example, the British medical journal Lancet published a new paper confirming that the novel coronavirus, indeed, can be transmitted in aerosol form.

“Nearly tears of joy seeing new paper in medical journal with correct analysis and interpretation of aerosol transmission,” tweeted Virginia Tech engineering professor Linsey Marr (@linseymarr). Added Harvard IAQ expert Joseph Allen, “We’ve been yelling [this] from the rooftops since February!” (@j_g_allen)

Prof. Allen is the lead author of the Harvard School of Public Health’s new special report “Risk Reduction Strategies for Reopening Schools.” I referenced that 60-page study in this space last month, and here we present its indoor air management section for your quick reference. (For the full report, go to schools.forhealth.org.)

Similarly, we have also devoted our News & Notes section in this issue to a summary of the latest recommendations from the ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force, headed by former ASHRAE President Dr. Bill Bahnfleth, P.E., an engineering professor at Penn State University and a member of our own Editorial Advisory Board. (Follow him on Twitter at @WBahnfleth.)

ASHRAE updated its own new guidelines for schools and universities on July 15. So we present in this issue the two checklists the group is suggesting that building engineers reference as they race to achieve “building readiness” this month at their schools. Again, though, in the interest of thoroughness, I still encourage all of you to check online frequently for updates in the days and weeks ahead. Toward that end, please also visit @HPACEng, where we try every day to stay abreast of the latest developments in this chaotic summer.

For a glimpse of how that uncertainty is already playing out at U.S. engineering schools this month, visit this story. There, we offer a coast-to-coast sample of how several top U.S. universities are planning to adjust instruction and stagger attendance to handle returning students safely.

Meanwhile, research engineers on campuses are intensifying efforts to create new products and strategies to mitigate virus risks even as the world medical community furiously pursues a vaccine. Indeed, 2020 is a frightening but thrilling time of challenge and opportunity for so many of us. May we all rise to this truly historic moment.

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