LOWER MERION TOWNSHIP, Pa. (CBS) – An investigation is underway after a COVID-19 outbreak at Penn Valley Elementary School in Montgomery County. Lower Merion School District officials say a faulty HVAC system may be to blame for the outbreak.
It’s since been fixed, but some Penn Valley parents are still concerned for their kids.
“Makes me worry a little bit just about the general parameters of what exactly if three feet and if the circulation is enough,” Penn Valley School parent Sarah Gallo said.
Parents like Sarah Gallo want answers after learning eight students in a second-grade class tested positive for COVID-19 at Penn Valley School in Lower Merion.
“We hadn’t seen an outbreak like this in a single classroom,” Lower Merion School District spokesperson Amy Buckman said.
Buckman says the second-grade class was quarantined last week while the rest of Penn Valley School remained opened as officials tried to figure out what happened.
What was found was a problem with the HVAC system.
Photos from the district show an operations staff member looking into a wall vent in the classroom and discovering a control mechanism called a “damper” was only allowing about 30% of fresh air into the room.
The Lower Merion School District is investigating if a faulty ventilation system led to eight second-graders testing positive for COVID-19 https://t.co/YqkX69BPmc @CBSPhilly pic.twitter.com/tKPgU26LD5
— Matt Petrillo (@MattPetrillo) April 26, 2021
“The only way you would know that what was to literally crawl up into the vent and look at this damper,” Buckman said. “The temperature in the classroom was fine. There was air coming out of that vent as it should have been, it just wasn’t as much air.”
School officials say two vaccinated family members of the impacted students tested positive as well.
“From what we understand from the Montgomery County Office of Public Health, they think we could be looking at a variant here, which might also explain why there was such contagiousness in the classroom,” Buckman said.
So now the district says a deep cleaning was done inside the classroom and it will continue to monitor the building’s air quality.
The Lower Merion School District posted the following statement on their website:
“As you may be aware, since last Thursday, we have been seeing a COVID-19 outbreak (now eight cases) in a second-grade class at Penn Valley Elementary School. The class has been quarantined since last Friday and we have not seen evidence of linked/in-school transmission at Penn Valley beyond that one class. LMSD Health Services continues to consult with the Montgomery County of Public Health (MCOPH) regarding this outbreak.
Because this was the first time we observed significant linked (in-school) transmission in our District, the LMSD Health Services team this week went beyond contact-tracing in an attempt to further investigate and understand conditions that could be factors in the outbreak. While the District does not have the ability to determine what strain of COVID is involved in these cases, it is able to look at other factors, such as those within the classroom.
To that end, LMSD’s Operations Department completed a full assessment of the Heating, Ventilation and Cooling (HVAC) system for the impacted room. The inspection revealed that a manual damper within the ductwork above the ceiling was too far closed, allowing only (approximately) 30% of the maximum amount of fresh air it should have into this specific room. The damper can only be seen by physically going into the duct. The automated system that controls the HVAC equipment did not trigger any alerts indicating repairs were needed. As you can imagine, the HVAC systems across our buildings have thousands of parts. Even with the best monitoring and maintenance, at times, parts do break.
LMSD cannot say definitively whether the diminished fresh airflow contributed to the outbreak; however, it could be a factor. MCOPH has also noted the possibility of a variant strain of COVID-19 being a factor, citing both the rapid spread within the class and the fact that two vaccinated family members of impacted students have also tested positive. Since the discovery of the malfunctioning manual damper, in addition to the deep-cleaning that has been performed in that classroom, Operations staff ran an HVAC system sensor check and will be conducting assurance tests of air quality at all buildings over the weekend and in coming weeks. Even before the pandemic, the ventilation systems throughout LMSD’s buildings met or exceeded standards. Due to COVID-19, the District increased ventilation and filtration levels in the HVAC systems, installed MERV 13 filters throughout the schools and installed bipolar ionization in large group spaces, such as cafeterias.
LMSD continues to work with and update MCOPH regarding this outbreak and all reported cases of COVID-19 within the District. We urge you to continue to follow protocols such as masking, distancing and hand-washing, and to use the daily screening toolPDF download before deciding whether a child should come to school. Please report any cases of or exposure to COVID-19 to the LMSD COVID Healthline by calling 610-645-1973 or by emailing email@example.com.”