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COVID filters part of re-opening schools

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In the ongoing battle against COVID-19, Hobbs Municipal Schools has added another layer in its armor with 2,261 MERV 13 air filters.

The filters will replace the current air filters in each H-VAC system in each HMS school building.

“Those filters are more dense so they trap the particles of the COVID-19 virus,” HMS Superintendent TJ Parks told the News-Sun. “In most of our classrooms the air re-circulates. The MERV 13 is certainly a more efficient filter, which makes it a cleaner environment to breath.”

Parks said installing the filters was one of the requirements of the state in order to possibly getting schools re-opened for in-person learning, and comes with a price tag of $126,397 to the district.

West Texas Filters Inc. has been installing the filters at various school campuses since December, and will finish with the Freshman and High School campuses on Friday. The Merv 13 filter is the filter recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for schools to install to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus, so HMS is just one of many districts installing the filters.

MERV stands for “Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value,” and ranges from 1-20. A higher MERV means higher filter efficiency. A filter with a MERV rating of 13-16 is considered a high-ranking MERV filter and can remove up to 75% of all airborne particles 0.3 microns or greater from the air.

Service Manager Kevin Speer at West Texas Filters, Inc. said they have had to increase the number of filters they keep in the warehouse to install for customers or change out when the filters need changed.

“They’re not usually used that extensively. About a year ago, I had 40 MERV 13s in my warehouse, and now I’ve got about 14,000,” Speer said of the company that employs about 13 people — eight of whom work in the field replacing and installing filters. “ They were unheard of until this.”

Merv 13 filters don’t meet the requirements for medical use Speer said, but are a popular choice for facilities outside of that.

“The popularity of the the MERV 13 is it’s about the highest Merv rating you can get in a one-inch and two-inch filter,” Speer told the News-Sun. “When you hear about HEPA filters and the MERV 14s and 15s in hospital environments, now you’re looking at four inches to 12 inches, that sort of thing.”

HEPA-Type filters capture up to 95-99% of particles (as small as 2 microns in size from the air that passes though the filter).

Not only do the MERV 13 filters come with a steep price tag, but because they are thicker, and restrict more air as it’s filtered, the lifespan of the HVAC equipment in each building will be reduced, Parks said.

“Because that filter is so dense it really pulls more on the motor,” Parks said. “The engineers we talked to said it will shorten the life of the units. Long-term effects, it will be an additional cost districts will have to look at replacing their HVAC units more frequently.”

HMS is fortunate that most of the district’s facilities have newer equipment, but districts with older equipment could be more financially strapped. Parks also said, the district is not likely to see any recuperation of the additional costs from the state.

“In the state’s eyes we’re considered property rich. For those districts that don’t have the tax base that we have, I think they will probably offer up some resources.” Parks said, noting there are some school districts in the state that still rely on swamp coolers and those have to add separate filtration for each classroom.

HMS didn’t have to go out for bids on the filters because the district already has a contract Honeywell for HVAC maintenance. Wes Texas Filters Inc. is a subcontractor of Honeywell.

“We have a great contract with Honeywell, and have been able to maintain our system every well,” Parks said. “With that it was just a filter rather than an equipment issue.

The filters are just one of the steps needed to get the green light to have students back in the classroom.

“The next step is for the state fire Marshall … they will be doing audits of every campus — all 19 campuses — and we have a list of about six things that have to be done,” Parks said. “It’s not an intrusive list — do we have the proper personal protective equipment available, do we have a quarantine room, do we have kids six feet apart, things like that.

The inspection process from the state fire Marshall starts today at noon, and the secondary schools will be done on Friday, Parks said.

“That’s what we believe is our final checkoff,” Parks said. “Then we’re just waiting for notification from the governor’s office that we’re going to be allowed to bring kids back.”

And, bringing students back is the ultimate goal. Parks is optimistic the governor could make an announcement as early as the next week or so that would allow school districts to bring back students in the Kindergarten through fifth grade in the 5-1 ratio pods, regardless of how a county is doing on the red, yellow, green scale.

“This loss of learning is going to be something that’s going to take a long time to get us back to where we need to be,” Parks said. “I think they’re looking at a lot of that data. I think they’re being very cautious about it, but I’m optimistic we’re going to hear something soon.”

Every staff member of HMS has stepped up to have the district in position to allow students back in the classroom, Parks said.

“Our staff has done a phenomenal job of getting prepared. We’re ready for kids,” Parks said. “I think we have provided the safest environment possible, now that we’ve also been able to offer the vaccine to every one of our staff members, along with the protocols of the filtration system, the sanitation we’ve done, what we’ve got in place is an optimal situation.”

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