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Air quality in the classroom: new technology deployed to fight Covid-19 and wildfire smoke

One valley school district is working toward cleaner air in the classroom, deploying new technology – and spending millions of dollars on it.

Thousands of portable, commercial grade air filters have been installed in every Palm Springs Unified School District classroom plus some work spaces, purifying all of the oxygen in a 1,300 sq. ft. room every 30 minutes.

"The air in the classroom shouldn't be something that anybody really worries about, but it is something that we worry about," said Dr. Brian Murray, assistant superintendent of business services at PSUSD. "We really hadn't thought about it prior to the pandemic."

Murray said with Covid-19 top of mind, clean air became a district priority – and it came at a cost.

"We have over 2,000 classrooms, so it was over $2 million for these units," he said, adding that the purifiers will remain as long as the pandemic is still going on. They were paid for using federal and state coronavirus relief funds.

The purifiers use medical grade HEPA filters meant to capture particles the size of coronavirus and smaller. And while they were initially meant to protect classrooms against Covid-19, the district is finding added protection from other airborne particles too, like wildfire smoke.

Smoke blanketed Coachella Valley skies in higher elevations for much of Monday and Tuesday.

"The smoky skies that we’ve been experiencing recently are actually from central California," said News Channel 3 Chief Meteorologist Haley Clawson. "The wind just steers that smoke down into the southland, reducing our air quality for the mountains and the desert and increasing our Air Quality Index level."

With wildfire season growing stronger and longer, the Air Quality Index is shooting up more. Experts say that can have adverse health effects on everyone, not just sensitive groups.

"Breathing a fine particulate matter, it can lead to a wide variety cardiovascular and respiratory health effects, such as heart attacks, asthma aggravation, decreased lung function, coughing or difficulty breathing," said Bradley Whitaker, senior public information officer with the South Coast Air Quality Management District. "It's something that we all should be mindful of."

That's why Murray said PSUSD is working to keep classrooms both smoke- and virus-free. "We're doing everything we can to ensure that the air they breathe in the classroom is safe and would not contribute to them getting sick either from wildfires or from Covid," he said.

Jake Ingrassia

Joining News Channel 3 and CBS Local 2 as a reporter, Jake is excited to be launching his broadcasting career here in the desert. Learn more about Jake here.

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