In early March, President Biden signed his $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan. Marking the largest one-time federal investment in education to date, the bill provides an unprecedented $129 billion in aid to K-12 schools and adds to the pot of funding still available from previous rounds of relief, including the $900 billion bill President Trump signed in December (2020). As schools navigate the costly challenge of bringing back students and teachers safely — and with a return to normalcy still months away — the question of how school administrators should spend their relief funding is more important than ever.
A note on funding timelines for K-12 schools: There has been a fair amount of confusion around accessing relief funds for K-12 schools. Federal funds are passed to state educational agencies, which then disburse funds to school districts. From there, districts decide how to allocate funds to individual schools. Generally, school districts have to apply on a state portal to access funding from their respective state educational agencies, with the application process and distribution timelines varying from state to state. State educational agencies have received funds from the December bill and have begun dispersing them to school districts; states will have received funds from the recent Biden bill sometime in March and begin dispersing them to districts in the coming weeks.
Disinfection equipment, an eligible expense under all three rounds of relief, is one particularly worthwhile investment. In fact, the CDC has named disinfection as a top COVID mitigation strategy for schools.
Disinfection Equipment: The Options
Traditionally, schools have relied on hazardous chemicals to disinfect classrooms and common spaces: think peroxide, ammonium, bleach, and alcohol. Yet, as the pandemic has progressed, a safer, more powerful, and more effective alternative for the education sector has emerged: ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI).
Considered the gold standard for disinfection in hospitals since the 1940s, UVGI is a method of disinfection that uses short-wavelength ultraviolet light (UV-C) to inactivate or kill microorganisms and pathogens. Not only is UVGI disinfection easier to implement, it’s also significantly more effective than traditional chemical disinfection (which is unreliable on surfaces and essentially useless against airborne pathogens), eliminating up to 99.99% of pathogens on surfaces and in the air in a standard room. Notably, the CDC’s school reopening guidance cites UVGI as an effective treatment to inactivate SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
While UVGI isn’t the only innovative disinfection tech to emerge amid the pandemic, it is one of the few such technologies whose efficacy and safety have been scientifically proven. Schools have reportedly spent millions on bipolar ionization and dry hydrogen peroxide disinfection devices, which tout claims of destroying airborne SARS-CoV-2. Unfortunately, many of these products have not undergone rigorous scientific testing, making them potentially dangerous. For example, studies have shown that bipolar ionization devices can generate harmful chemical byproducts indoors. Schools need to be aware of the unvalidated and potentially unsafe devices that have inundated the market in the COVID-19 era, and should always ask to see data to back up product claims.
Return on Investment (ROI)
Historically, hospital-grade UV-C systems have been cost-prohibitive for organizations outside of major hospitals. However, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed how vulnerable we are to infectious disease, it became clear that the best disinfection solutions needed to be within reach of every organization. In fact, it’s the very reason R-Zero was founded: to make the best infection prevention tools and technologies accessible to organizations of all shapes and sizes. Today, businesses and schools alike are able to access our flagship UV-C device, Arc, via an affordable monthly subscription lease. Better yet, UV-C devices are also an eligible expense for schools under all three rounds of COVID relief.
Thanks to the confluence of government funding and accessible pricing, schools can leverage the added layer of protection UVGI provides for the first time — as well as the very real savings it generates. Compared to other disinfection methods, UVGI can do a better job of preventing COVID-19 outbreaks that lead to teacher and student sick days, costly shutdowns, and further disrupt learning. In the post-pandemic world, UVGI can reduce spread of common illnesses, helping schools recoup some of the $4 billion spent on substitute teachers and associated administrative fees each year.
Implementing high-efficacy disinfection also helps address a critical aspect of the reopening process: trust. As Superintendent of LeRoy Community Unit School District #2 in IL, Gary Tipsord put it:
“How our parents feel about the cleanliness and safety of our classrooms, as a result of using R-Zero’s UV technology… it has clearly created a difference that’s indisputable.”
Many UV-C devices, like Arc, are virtually touch-free, allowing school staff to spend less time cleaning and sanitizing and more time teaching. With Arc, the user simply pushes a button and leaves the room for 7 minutes while the device fully disinfects the space. Compare that to electrostatic spraying, which requires cleaning staff to seal off a room, suit up in full PPE (including a hospital-grade respirator), and then wait for up to an hour while the sprayed chemicals dry to protect teachers and students from exposure to toxic fumes.
Kevin Quinn, Director of Maintenance and Facilities at Mundelein High School (which purchased Arc with COVID relief funds), says implementing Arc has cut the time it takes to disinfect a classroom after a detected case – from 72 hours to just 11 minutes.
“Arc has enabled us to increase the number of students we can hold inside of our school every day. It’s allowed us greater flexibility with our school’s hybrid learning schedule.”
By streamlining disinfection protocols, UVGI eliminates the need to shut down schools for emergency deep cleanings or hire additional custodial staff — both of which can be extremely costly. An analysis from The Association of School Business Officials and the School Superintendents Association estimates the average school district spent an additional $448,000 on hiring additional custodial staff during fall 2020 reopenings.
Let’s put some numbers behind UV-C’s ROI in the context of an individual school. According to our internal calculations (which align with estimations from the CDC), the equipment and labor costs associated with electrostatic spraying ring in at around $300 per student per school year. The same costs associated with leasing R-Zero’s Arc only come out to $52 per student per year.
UV-C disinfection eliminates another cost associated with chemical disinfection, albeit a more insidious one: human health. Chemical disinfectants are toxic substances. Case in point: all are categorized as pesticides by the EPA. Routine use of these chemicals has been linked to increased risk of chronic respiratory issues and even cancer in workers. Today, newer forms of chemical application, such as electrostatic spraying, may exacerbate these risks.
Those spending time in frequently disinfected spaces are at risk, too. Studies show that fumes from chemical disinfectants can linger in the air for 20 minutes after application — which means that students and teachers may suffer the consequences of repeated exposure, especially if disinfectant use remains high for years to come as experts predict. Toxic residue left behind on food and surfaces can also be problematic, particularly in early education classrooms, where children are more likely to put fingers in their mouths after touching affected toys and surfaces.
UV-C disinfection, on the other hand, is eco-friendly and leaves behind no toxic residue — making it safe to use around food, lab equipment, and toys in pre-K and kindergarten classrooms. It also eliminates the need to store hazardous chemicals on campus and the associated risk of accidents.
A Disinfection Solution for Today — and Tomorrow
Whether a public school district of thousands or an independent charter school of 100, effective, enhanced disinfection is key in safely returning to in-person learning, today and in a post-pandemic future. The coronavirus pandemic has brought new scrutiny around our disinfection practices, and going forward, all organizations will likely be held to a higher standard for health and safety. After all, infectious diseases aren’t going away; the flu alone costs the US over $87 billion annually, and scientists predict that large-scale viral outbreaks will only become more common in the coming years.
Using stimulus dollars to purchase or lease a UV-C disinfection system today is an investment in a safer, healthier future — a future in which education systems are empowered with the tools to reduce the spread of all infectious diseases. At R-Zero, we believe this future isn’t simply an ideal, but a necessity. And it’s one we are working diligently to make a reality for every district and campus across the country.
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