For the past two months, much of the public-health-policy energy left over after arguments about the COVID-19 vaccine (and how to convince or coerce more people to get the jab) has been directed toward debates about masks. Deliberations about whether to mandate masks in Middle Tennessee schools, including in Nashville, led to chaotic and notably contentious school board meetings; Gov. Bill Lee waded in by issuing an executive order — since blocked in part by three federal judges — allowing parents to opt out of school mask mandates. Most recently, the Metro Council passed a resolution urging Nashville’s health department to reinstate a countywide mask mandate. The health department declined to do so, and now the council is considering a bill that would require masks by city ordinance. 

At the council’s Sept. 21 meeting, before the body narrowly advanced the proposed mask mandate on the second of three readings, District 19 Councilmember Freddie O’Connell voted against the bill. He said that he supported mask-wearing, but felt the council was spending an “unusual amount of energy on a mitigation that has limited efficacy at best.” He added that he’d rather see more time put into more effective mitigation strategies — increasing vaccination rates, of course, but also improvements in ventilation in public buildings and, particularly, in Metro schools. 

In an interview with the Scene, O’Connell expresses support for existing mask mandates in Metro buildings and in the city’s schools. But beyond that, he says he expects people who have resisted mask-wearing since the beginning to continue doing so now, regardless of Metro’s policies. 

“You want to focus on the systems you can change,” O’Connell says. “The best part about ventilation is, it’s a mask that fits everybody. You don’t have to change people’s personal behavior in order to get something that fits. You can do so much to reduce the likelihood of transmission of COVID in interior spaces by improving the air quality of those spaces.”

In his remarks to the council, O’Connell cited the Belcourt Theatre’s efforts to improve ventilation ahead of its reopening in November of last year. But on a citywide basis, he said, Nashville is not “maxing out our efforts” on ventilation improvement or testing, he noted. 

When it comes to Metro schools — public buildings where tens of thousands of Nashville parents send their children every day — the issue is particularly relevant. The quality of air ventilation in schools is not just relevant to efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 — and thus reduce the number of students who miss class because they are sick or quarantined — but also to other airborne illnesses. 

Citing information from the Metro Nashville Public Schools Facilities Department, Metro schools spokesperson Sean Braisted points to a number of ways MNPS is following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention related to ventilation. Among them: starting systems up earlier and allowing them to run longer in the afternoons to provide more air changes; increasing the MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) rating on filters to the maximum MNPS systems will allow; running HVAC systems, in many cases, constantly during the day to increase air changes; ensuring exhaust fans in restrooms and kitchens are working correctly, which increases ventilation and air destratification; and providing new HVAC systems or new outside makeup air units, or both, along with new building controls as funding develops.

MNPS has already made some HVAC upgrades using funds from the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, and plans to spend at least $4 million more. Additionally, the fiscal year 2022 capital spending plan approved by the council earlier this year includes more than $60 million in ventilation-related upgrades. The district’s buildings are 49 years old or older on average, Braisted tells the Scene. Although “many components would have been repaired or replaced as needed to maintain functionality,” Braisted says, he notes that “there are often components of the HVAC system (distribution pipes, etc.) that may be original to the structure.” 

Some recommendations from the CDC and other public health experts aren’t being acted upon in Nashville schools, though. In updated guidance released earlier this year and aimed at supporting in-person learning, the CDC encouraged schools to crack open a window or door to the outside to increase outdoor airflow, “which helps reduce the potential concentration of virus particles in the air.” In information shared by O’Connell, Metro schools facilities officials say the district has taken steps to increase “outside air intake as much as possible and practical,” but MNPS is not recommending opening doors and windows. 

“We cannot create one potential environmental problem while solving another,” Braisted says. “Maintaining a humidity level in our facilities of 50 percent to 60 percent is of utmost importance to the proper operation of the systems in our facilities. If we overtax the systems with humidity, they do not work well, which can result in poor quality air, higher CO2, and contaminants such as mold and mildew. It will also reduce mechanical airflow — what we do not want to do. The same can be said for the cooler and winter months here.”

The CDC has also encouraged the use of “portable air cleaners that use high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters,” a tool also cited by Meharry Medical College president Dr. James Hildreth. But MNPS says that “air purifiers can clean the air but unfortunately don’t circulate the air as needed and can overload the electrical circuitry in older systems.” The district also points to the size of the virus that causes COVID-19, stating it is so small that even HEPA filters would be less effective at catching it. That could be wrong, though. A November 2020 article in Wirecutter, the New York Times-owned product-review website, cited a 2016 NASA study in reporting that “air purifiers with HEPA filtration efficiently capture particles the size of (and far smaller than) the virus that causes COVID-19.”

Kelsey Beyeler contributed reporting for this story.

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