Pandemic Safety: Air Circulation in Campus Buildings

Occidental College has made a number of efforts to ensure safe ventilation in the campus buildings where our community members work, teach and live.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the College has made the safety of our campus community its top priority. For Facilities Management, an important part of this holistic safety effort is ensuring that we have safely ventilated building environments for teaching, living, and working. Properly configured HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems can reduce person-to-person exposure when used in conjunction with other infection control practices. At Oxy, these other practices include frequent testing, contact tracing, quarantining of infected or at-risk individuals, masks and social distancing, and increased cleaning of occupied spaces and high-touch surfaces.

To ensure that Occidental is in alignment with the latest guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), our in-house experts—Sara Semal of Emmons Wellness Center and Chris Reyes, associate director of facilities management—have worked closely with outside consulting HVAC engineers and Dr. Kim Shriner ‘80, infectious disease specialist from Huntington Hospital, over the past several months. We also benefited from the input of the Air Conditioning Task Force, which included representatives from Facilities Management, Emmons Wellness Center, Residential Education and Housing Services, outside engineering experts, and faculty: Roberta Pollock from Biology, Mike Hill from Chemistry, and Daniel Snowden-Ifft from Physics. The purpose of this message is to explain the steps we have already taken and our action plan to help ensure a safe environment on campus in future.

Teaching and Work Spaces

Facilities Management staff has tested all HVAC systems in each building and have made any needed repairs to ensure proper operation and air circulation/exchange rates. In addition, out of an abundance of caution, we have brought in outside engineers to test the HVAC systems in our most frequently used learning and work spaces, including Swan, Hinchliffe and Johnson halls, Bioscience, the Anderson Center, Hameetman Science Center, Mosher, the old Library in the Academic Commons, Herrick Chapel and AGC. We also have upgraded the filtering system in these buildings to ensure proper fresh air filtration. Outside engineers will continue to test HVAC systems in other buildings as we learn what kind of campus usage state and county public health officials allow.

The CDC has recommended upgrading the HVAC filters to the highest rating current systems can handle, given the added airflow restrictions that result from their use. Because of the varying ages and capacities of the systems in Oxy’s buildings, use of a single kind of filter is not feasible. Each HVAC system has been upgraded to the highest-rated air filters possible, in keeping with ASHRAE standards.

Residence Halls

We have undergone a careful assessment of the HVAC systems in each hall. These systems do not recirculate air from room to room. They introduce fresh air through a supply duct, which is filtered before being introduced into each room. Restrooms in the residence halls are being modified to reduce the number of users at one time, and we will increase the frequency of cleaning.

Across Campus

Cleaning Services staff is committed to more frequent cleaning with EPA-recommended cleaning products and e-mist machines. E-mist machines are able to disinfect rooms in minutes. When more students return to campus, all restrooms would be cleaned multiple times per day, as would high-touch surfaces such as door handles. Hand sanitizer dispensers will be deployed at all building entrances, as well as classrooms.

Long-term Planning

In preparing for the time when we can return to some level of in-person instruction, whenever that may be, Facilities has worked with the Registrar and faculty to determine the appropriate size and space configuration when scheduling class locations. We have demarcated correctly distanced student chairs, and the spacing needed to allow for proper distancing between students and faculty in line with CDC guidance. We also have developed a methodology for adjusting class schedules based on the length of time teaching spaces are occupied and the increased amount of time needed to safely pass from one class to the next.

As you may have seen, we have set up tents on campus to study how they may serve as an option for appropriate teaching spaces for certain academic activities. These tents also would allow proper spacing between students and faculty, and would include all required audio-visual equipment to allow for teaching. We’re grateful to the faculty who have come to campus to evaluate the tents and offer feedback that we have incorporated in our plans.

In summary, the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff have been carefully considered in the formulation and implementation of this plan. We will remain flexible in our approach as more is learned about viral transmission and the best methods for reducing exposure.

Tom Polansky
Associate Vice President
Facilities Management