FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — Improving air quality in the 49 schools at Fort Wayne Community Schools has been in progress for a while.

Now, with federal COVID-related dollars available to public schools to let fresh air in and reduce the spread of germs, FWCS is making greater improvements that already have reduced absenteeism from students and staff and visits to the health clinic.

The district will spend 68% of nearly $75 million in so-called ESSER funds on HVAC and ventilation related projects, Darren Hess, FWCS director of facilities said Wednesday. He met with WANE 15 Thursday at Brentwood Elementary School where two classrooms were in the process of being renovated with Temspec univentilators, a Canadian model destined for more than 300 FWCS classrooms throughout 11 buildings. About 98% will be used to improve air quality, Hess added.

The univentilator by Temspec that will be installed in 300 classrooms at Fort Wayne Community Schools.

“They (the projects) weren’t currently planned or funded through our capital projects funds or referendum dollars but they were always planned in the future,” Hess said Wednesday. The funding allows the district to make the improvements sooner.

Hess said the univentilators will help alleviate trips to the nurse’s clinic for breathing treatments.

Hess spoke in a classroom where renovations were taking place, a brand new univentilator already installed and a MERV-13 filter used to filter pollutants from the air nearby, Hess said. One of the challenges in renovating HVAC and air quality systems is the equipment availability from manufacturers who are overwhelmed with orders. There’s also competition to get contractors, Hess said.

“We’re still waiting on some equipment to show up. We’ve got contractors ready. We’ve got sheetmetal going in as much as we can ahead of time, but until that equipment shows up, we’re kind of waiting,” Hess said, adding that the projects will be finished over a two-year time frame.

With the new equipment, fresh air exchanges will take place more than the five times a day, as recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency. Brand new and unexpected at this time is the Global Plasma Systems Ionization equipment at $3.2 million, that will be installed in larger areas like cafeterias.

The district investigated the needlepoint ionization equipment through tracking and monitoring it and found it was a “proven device,” Hess said. The equipment emits positive ions into air supply that attach themselves to bad particulates, making them large. The larger particles pass through the return side and are filtered out, cleaning the air.

A MERV-13 filter used to filter pollutants and make the air quality much better in classrooms.

According to an EPA-issued report in November, nearly 20% of America’s population are school kids who spend their days inside elementary and secondary schools and nearly one quarter of those schools report unsatisfactory ventilation with nearly 20 percent reporting unsatisfactory indoor air quality.

With the CDC establishing that COVID was spread through the air, the federal government focused on “Clean Air in Buildings Challenge,” encouraging people to adopt a strategy that allowed open windows, air filtration systems such as HEPA or MERV-13 and adding ultraviolet germicidal irradiation systems to HVAC units. Studies show that with five air changes an hour reducing transmission risk by half, FWCS will go better than that. Hess estimates that the air will be changed more than 8 times an hour, he said.

FWCS isn’t the only school district to use ESSER funds to improve air quality. Tamyra Kelly, spokeswoman for the East Allen School District, said the district is currently renovating the HVAC system at Leo High School. Kelly and Paulette Nellems, an EACS board member, said that $7 million has been spent to improve air quality at EACS schools.

“We have plans to upgrade all of our buildings’ HVAC after board approval,” Kelly wrote in an email.

At Huntington North High School, where air quality was a major issue during a 2019 referendum that did not pass, school officials reported children getting sick from poor air quality. Chad Daugherty, Huntington Schools superintendent, said with the ESSER funds the district will spend $3.2 on HVAC.

The improvements will take place at Lincoln, Flint Springs and Andrews elementary schools and boilers and chillers at Horace Mann elementary school and Riverview Middle Schools. At Crestview elementary, the money will be used for boilers only and at the Salamonie Schools, boilers and chillers will be renovated, Daugherty said.