COVID-19 shines spotlight on Naperville North ventilation system


Photo by Megan Cablk

Lucy Westlake, Staff Writer

When NNHS students return to the classroom Wednesday, they may not be able to tell, but upgraded air filters and improved air circulation will be working to make them safer, according to interviews with school officials. 


In the wake of the Covid-19 global pandemic, North’s Building and Maintenance crew, led by North’s Facility Manager Rob Troppel and overseen by Director of Buildings and Grounds for District 203 Patrick Dolan, began assessments of North’s ventilation system last spring. 


“Almost all of the systems were addressed early enough that if we had students come back in August or September, we would have been ready for them,” Dolan said. 


Building and Maintenance crew continually work to ensure North’s ventilation systems fall in line with air quality guidelines from the IL Department of Public Health, which ranks indoor air pollution as one of the top five threats to public health. Their criteria addresses humidity, temperature, carbon dioxide levels and more. According to the national consensus standard, ASHRAE Standard 62.1-2010, a major component of proper air ventilation is introducing fresh air from outside into the school. 


Troppel said that North will now introduce twice as much air from outside the building as they normally do and Dolan praises the new MERV-13 filters, upgraded last summer, which will start exchanging air three to four hours before students arrive in the building. ASHRAE suggests MERV-13 filters as a worthwhile step to prevent COVID-19 spread. 


“As far as I’m aware, we’ve had zero cases spread in the building. The guidelines say to do all the mitigation strategies and together they work to keep everybody safe and to prevent spread. I would attribute air quality to be one of those factors, but not the largest factor,” Naperville North Principal Jay Wachtel said.


Ventilation is only one of many strategies utilized by Naperville North to prevent the spread of COVID within the building and it is often overlooked. Masking, social distancing, hand washing and regular disinfecting are more visible components in what Wachtel calls North’s “layered strategy” to address health concerns.


Naperville North junior Macy Fleury has participated in the hybrid learning model since its start in January. Although she has not noticed the changes made to North’s ventilation system, she is comforted by other precautions.  


“Having the desks spaced apart and everyone wearing masks, I feel like those are the biggest things to prevent COVID. I feel like that’s a lot of extra effort for them to put in just to make sure students feel safe, so that’s really nice,” Fleury said.


While air quality control may not be the flashiest of protocols, it is an important one, even in pre-COVID times.


“We feel very strongly that indoor air quality is a large part of teaching and the curriculum. If you felt as a student very tired at 1:30 in the afternoon, that could be related to a lack of airflow in the classroom and a lack of fresh air in the entire system,” said Dolan. “A lot of schools experience that problem where air quality is secondary to everything else. We have people who are very aware of making sure that the system runs smoothly and everyone in the building is healthy.”


Troppel leads a team of 28 faculty members dedicated to building maintenance. Though their roles at North may not be apparent, they are indispensable to the education system; COVID has simply shined a spotlight on their work.


“I’ve worked here for 20 years, and I’ve known there’s an air-quality person… if you smelled something funny or if the air got humid I knew we called this certain number and they came, but I didn’t think much about it,” Wachtel said. “As COVID happened, I learned that these people know a lot of stuff about the AVAC system and air quality. They’re really good at their job. It’s really impressive, and I learned a lot… It’s been interesting to me that something so prevalent in our district I knew so little about for so many years.” 


Further methods to ensure healthy air quality come in the forms of updating hardware to allow the easy opening and closing of windows and utilizing air purifiers in specific locations. 


“Almost all of the spaces I did some analysis on at Naperville North had good to excellent ventilation rates already,” Dolan said. 


Fleury praises North’s commitment to ensuring a safe learning environment amidst the pandemic. 


“Naperville North is doing a pretty good job of keeping us in school. I know a lot of other schools are really lax on their COVID policies, so I feel like North is doing a good job of keeping it nice and efficient and making sure students are held responsible to follow the guidelines,” Fleury said.