The New Bedford Public Schools are being equipped with state-of-the-art HEPA air scrubbers as the district launches Phase 3 of its gradual return to classroom instruction.

Over 600 portable air exchange units will be installed in school buildings, said Superintendant Thomas Anderson. In addition, windows have been upgraded or repaired, surfaces are being disinfected on a regular basis, and clear rules are in place for distancing and wearing masks.

The $450,000 investment in indoor air quality comes as the schools begin Phase 3 of their reopening plan. The cost of the units was supported by COVID relief funding awarded in July, said Andrew O'Leary, assistant superintendent of finance and operations for the district.

The first round of 300 air scrubbers were deployed at older schools last week, and 300 scrubbers delivered this week will go to secondary schools and the newer elementary schools. The units have a four-stage filter system and an airflow rate of 600 cubic feet per minute.

Engineers conducted a review of existing HVAC and ventilation conditions, and their report was reviewed by a district stakeholder group. The process led school officials to their decision to buy the air purification devices, O'Leary said. He remarked that the action puts the district "ahead of the curve in terms of delineating areas needing improvement and addressing them with state-of-the-art equipment."

O'Leary said the stakeholder group on airflow drew from the Healthy Buildings Initiative of the Harvard T. H. chan School of Public Health and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's guidance on facilities re-opening. The review process led to various recommended protocols for different building types. The protocols include the use of windows and box fans, air "flush outs" in the morning and evening, and modification of mechanical system settings to maximize outdoor air.

New Bedford schools are bringing students back to the classroom in phases. This week 2,150 "Cohort B" students were welcomed back, joining 400 "Cohort A" students. That's still less than 20 percent of the total student body of 13,000.

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