Columbia makes efforts to improve building ventilation, some say efforts might fall short

By Ryan Rosenberger, Staff Reporter

Jennifer Chavez

As part of a series of preventive measures designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus on campus, the college is updating its heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC, systems in nine of its campus buildings.

In a Tuesday, Aug. 4 collegewide email from the Office of the President, the college announced the systems will now include Ultraviolet Germicidal Irradiation technology, or UVGI.

“UVGI disinfects the air by inactivating or killing microorganisms and pathogens and is designed to enhance indoor air quality in classrooms where exertion and projection are more likely to occur,” the email stated.

The college said the UVGI technology will be installed in “buildings or parts of buildings where individuals either exert themselves or where individuals engage in other activities that, like exertion, produce aerosols.”

Buildings receiving these updates include: 754 S. Wabash Ave., 1306 S. Michigan Ave., 1600 S. State St., 1104 S. Wabash Ave., 33 E. Ida B. Wells Drive, 1014 S. Michigan, 618 S. Michigan Ave., 916 S. Wabash Ave. and 72 E. 11th St.

The buildings chosen for updates are occupied by music performance spaces, dance classes, stage combat spaces and other classes.

The email stated that old filters in air ducts will be replaced with newly-installed “high-quality pleated MERV 8 filters,” and building engineers are preparing to install units with the intention of being done by the start of the fall semester. A MERV or Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value measures a filter’s ability to trap specific types of particles, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Diana Vallera, president of Columbia​’s part-time faculty union CFAC and adjunct faculty member in the Photography Department, said the new updates are a step in the right direction, as reported by the Chronicle Wednesday, Aug. 5

She said she is concerned about the college sending an email announcing the installation of the MERV 8 filters because it creates a perception of safety, though there are more effective filters.

Vallera said the only filters that can adequately help reduce the spread of the coronavirus are High-Efficiency Particulate Air, or HEPA, filters.

She said the way the college’s HVAC systems are set up now, they would not be able to handle HEPA filters. But she said the college can implement them in a cost-effective manner by placing portable HEPA filters in classrooms.

During a Tuesday, Aug. 4 virtual town hall co-hosted by CFAC, William J. Mills, an associate professor in the Department of Engineering and Technology at Northern Illinois University, said UVGI technology—which is what Columbia is installing—is well established but will require a “sufficient dose” to make a difference.

Mills said for the best outcome, installing various smaller HEPA filters in classrooms, rather than one large one, will create an adequate airflow within the room, as reported by the Chronicle Wednesday, Aug. 5.

Craig Sigele, president of the United Staff of Columbia College and academic manager for the Communication Department, said he is relying on the college to decide what is best when it comes to reopening.

“I trust the college to make the best choice,” Sigele said. “It’s in their interest that we’re all safe, and I’m not going to second guess them.”

Sean Johnson Andrews, associate professor in the Humanities Department and president of the Faculty Senate, said following precautions like wearing masks, social distancing and hand-washing remain more important than proper ventilation. He said if people are actively taking those precautions then there will be less of a need for filters.

“If we have fewer people on campus, if we have everyone wearing masks [and] every one doing the pre-screening, that’s going to make it safer,” Andrews said.

But Luis Nasser, associate professor in the Science and Mathematics Department, said it is “unwise” to reopen campus due to a large number of faculty being older in age, putting them at higher risk.

Nasser said aspects of the reopening plan such as daily pre-checks and temperature checkpoints ignore asymptomatic transmission of the coronavirus, which is a “key form of transmission,” he said.

With a month to go until the fall semester kicks off, Vallera said she is still “cautiously optimistic” about the chances of portable HEPA units still being installed, ensuring a safer return to campus.

“I have felt very positive with some of the conversations we’re having [with the college],” Vallera said. “Nothing seems to be ruled out. I hoped by now, that some of those HEPA units would be ordered —they have not — but they’re also having serious discussions about bringing some in.”