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The HVAC system at Harriet Tubman is what all schools could use right now

The school's HVAC system was designed to remove particles from vehicle exhaust. But it also filters out COVID-19 virus droplets.

PORTLAND, Ore — Air quality experts agree if kids go back to school during the pandemic, we need to think about the air they'll breathe inside the buildings.  

A school in Portland could be the example of what needs to happen when it comes to ventilation.

Harriet Tubman Middle School sits just above the often jammed stretch of I-5 near the Rose Quarter.

The air outside the school was deemed so polluted, Portland Public Schools spent millions two years ago to install a state-of-the-art HVAC system.

"A distinct feature of Harriet Tubman Middle School is that there are these advanced air cleaning systems that remove air pollution," explained Elliot Gall.

Gall was part of a team of researchers from Portland State University helping the district come up with the lung-saving system.

Its purpose is to remove the tiny particles coming from vehicle exhaust.

"They removed 95% or more of the particles or aerosols that were present in air that passed through that filter," Gall said. "So the system is quite effective at removing those particles from air."

It's a system some experts say every school needs, especially now.

One of the ways the COVID-19 virus spreads is by aerosol transmission. Aerosols are the tiny droplets which stay suspended in the air after an infected person coughs or speaks. Those particles are actually quite a bit larger than some of the particles coming from car exhaust.

That means that HVAC system at Harriet Tubman is also able to filter out airborne diseases including the COVID-19 virus.

"Air cleaning certainly plays a role when we think about bringing buildings back on line and bringing people back into buildings," Gall said.

It's a fix with a cost in the millions, but it's an investment that should have healthy returns for our schools and those who learn and work inside them.

"It's certainly not a silver bullet to making buildings safe," said Gall. "But it's one tool we should be thinking about."

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