Weslaco ISD mulls air sanitization proposal

WESLACO — Trustees at Weslaco ISD considered a proposal to spend upwards of $1.8 million, and potentially more than $3 million, on air disinfection units for the district’s HVAC systems at their Sept. 14 meeting.

The board considered rough estimates for the purchase and installation of two types of systems: bipolar ionization units with an estimated price tag of $1.8 million to $2.2 million and ultraviolet-C lighting units costing between $2.6 and $3 million.

HVAC Director Americo Garza cautioned that those figures are rough estimates and only include 10 elementary campuses, four middle schools and the district’s two main high schools.

Garza listed at least 16 locations not covered under the estimate, including Louise Black – Early College High School, the agriculture facility and the performing arts center — sites Garza says will be included in a future estimate.

“It is very, very difficult to try to put something as exact or as precise to the actual cost, so an assessment has to be made of our units as far as installation goes as well and as far as accessibility to our units to be able to get a better cost,” he said. “We try to get our vendors and contractors to provide information, but it is quite difficult.”

The information Garza presented included pros and cons for each method of sanitization. Exposure to UV-C is hazardous and requires specialized equipment to work with, he said, noting that those units are not readily available from vendors and require more maintenance.

According to Garza, bipolar ionization requires minimal maintenance but has the potential to produce ozone, which is also hazardous. He described bipolar ionization as a newer, less-documented technology.

“The CDC also, while not endorsing it, they do state that reports show that it’s an effective technology and that the initial safety concerns with the technology have been addressed according to reports,” he said. “But as with everything, they do encourage consumers to research and make sure that we exercise caution with all considered emerging technology, which is what we’ve done here.”

Assistant Superintendent of Business and Finance Andres Sanchez said money for the project would have to be taken from the fund balance and by looking into maintenance tax notes.

The board considered the proposal as children across the state begin heading back to campus after months of virtual learning caused by COVID-19.

Oscar Riojas, executive director of athletics and district facilities, installing one of the systems would help fight a variety of germs.

“The beauty of this program, in the event that we have it installed, it’s going to help us throughout the flu system, it’s going to help us throughout so many different ailments that we have to combat on a daily basis and keep our kids in school as much as possible,” he said.

None of the trustees voiced any opposition to installing some sort of system, focusing instead on just how soon the units could be put in place.

Garza said he couldn’t give the board a timeline on when the project could be completed.

“The time factor is very important,” President Isidoro Nieto. “The faster we can work on this the better it is, because you know, if we want our students and staff to be back we want to make sure they’re safe.”

Trustees also emphasized their desire to have the units installed in those 16-plus buildings not included in the estimate.

“You need to put it on all buildings where staff or students are present,” Trustee Erasmo “Moe” Lopez said.

Trustee Patrick Kennedy indicated that he would prefer the UV-C system, the more expensive of the two, but added that he’d like more information on the project.

“Based upon the presentation, I’m leaning toward pursuing the UV-C lighting option. When you mentioned the free radicals causing cancer by the bipolar ionization that kind of puts me off…” he said.