Doña Ana County school districts face new air filter regulations from state
LAS CRUCES - COVID-19 public health guidelines have changed the way many systems function; public schools have changed their entire learning model. Schools try to keep up with state guidelines, including air filter regulations which pressure schools to quickly accommodate.
As with many guidelines for COVID-safe practices, the air filter requirements changed over time. Initially, the New Mexico Public Education Department required a MERV 9 or higher in all schools. In September, however, that requirement changed to a MERV 13 to match advisory from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers.
MERV 13 filters are more effective in removing viral particles from the air, helping to limit the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease.
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The Minimum Efficiency Reporting Values — or MERV — number indicates the density of the filter; a higher MERV rating means a thicker filter which filters out smaller particles.
A MERV 8 or MERV 9 is standard for most public schools, according to Gabe Jacquez, deputy superintendent of operations for Las Cruces Public Schools.
Due to reports that MERV 13 filters wear down ventilation systems, and would cost much more to schools whose budgets are already tight with accommodations made for COVID-19 in other areas, NMPED also allows the highest MERV filter that the system is compatible with.
Each district in Doña Ana County has approached the air filtration issue in a different way.
Las Cruces Public Schools
Jacquez said the district will be getting a shipment of MERV 13 air filters in mid-November. Currently, LCPS has MERV 8 filters installed districtwide. But MERV 13 — which is a better filter — is now required by the NMPED.
LCPS ordered MERV 13 filters in mid-September, when the new requirement was announced by NMPED. But the delivery date has been pushed back, due to high demand for the air filtration systems across the country.
Jacquez explained that the manufacturing of filters is being slowed by the shortage for the filtering media that makes up the MERV 13.
“It's affected many districts who run typically a (MERV 8) or a (MERV 9) like we do, so everybody's asking for the same thing at the same time,” Jacquez said. “At first, it was a … two- to six-week (wait), and then they pushed it off to eight. There's really no options … pretty much you have to get in line, and as they get produced, they will get out to folks.”
In the meantime, LCPS has been using individual HEPA air filters, which are individual air purifiers, and opening windows and doors to improve air circulation.
The week of Oct. 19, LCPS brought a group of eight special education students to Picacho Middle School for in-person instruction to meet their needs. But the school was shut down on Oct. 22 after an employee in the school tested positive for COVID-19.
Vista Middle is currently holding in-person instruction for special education students as the district slowly introduces small special education classes back to in-person learning in different schools.
Hatch Valley Public Schools
Districtwide, Hatch Valley Public Schools has had MERV 10 filters for three years, according to Jimmy Martinez, administrative assistant for HVPS's maintenance department.
Martinez said they looked into purchasing MERV 13 filters for the district, but quickly realized the filters would not be compatible with many of the systems in place.
He said their Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning systems range from 5 to 15 years old or more across the schools in HVPS.
After consulting with its vendor who manages their HVAC systems, HVPS concluded that they would not have the funds to replace all their filters.
Martinez said that not only would that higher price of the MERV 13 filters be hard to accommodate, but these filters need to be replaced more frequently — since they filter out more particles and fill up more quickly. Additionally, the filters run down the HVAC systems, which could potentially require pricey repairs.
"Quite frankly, we just don't have the funding to do what Las Cruces Public Schools do," Martinez said. "We're really glad to hear that the (MERV) 10's were okay, and we can continue using those."
Martinez said HVPS recently made an order to replace all their air filters, a routine process that happens around once a quarter. He said there have not been any shortages for MERV 10 filters.
Martinez said that the national shortage in MERV 13 filters was not the cause for the district opting to continue using MERV 10 filters. After talking with vendors, HVPS decided MERV 10 filters were the best option for the district.
HVPS Superintendent Michael Chavez said that the district is not offering in-person instruction at this time.
Before the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in Doña Ana County, HVPS was offering ancillary one-on-one instruction on a needs-basis, according to Chavez. That instruction has stopped, and Chavez said they will not be offering face-to-face instruction again until cases come down.
Gadsden Independent School District
Gadsden Independent School District will continue to use MERV 8 and MERV 9.
GISD spokesman Luis Villalobos stated that "not all GISD systems can handle such a restrictive filter as the MERV 13. This filter, although more efficient in producing air quality, can make systems work much harder to get air through and, in turn, could (cause) wear and tear, possibly lowering the life expectancy of systems."
Villalobos said that GISD will be replacing the air filters more frequently than normal to ensure the air circulating in school buildings is clean. GISD will not be holding any in-person instruction for the remainder of the semester.
Villalobos also stated that, due to the unavailability of MERV 13 filters because of the recent spike in demand, GISD has not been able to purchase them up to now.