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Lighting the way, with UV technology

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During the day, uniformed students studying at their socially distanced desks fill the classrooms at St. Ambrose School in Annandale. But at night, the school looks more like a sci-fi scene as something resembling an extraterrestrial lifeform moves through the empty building, radiating an eerie blue light that can be seen through the closed windows of the deserted classrooms. But far from being an alien threat, this mysterious presence is keeping the school sanitized.

The spectral lighting comes from a mobile unit that emits ultraviolet — c-spectrum light, a powerful energy that inactivates pathogens in the air and on surfaces. This remedial in-room decontamination system, or RIDS, is part of the nightly sanitization plan implemented by the school to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. To faculty and staff, the RIDS unit is referred to simply as “the tower.”

After cleaning each room, maintenance staff rolls in the tower, which resembles the crow’s nest of a ship with its barrel-like base encircling a slim pole. Five tubes running from the base to the top of the pole radiate the UV-C light.

Warning signs are placed outside the room about to be sterilized, and the blinds are drawn to prevent exposure to the harsh rays. The staff then departs and remotely activates the unit through a mobile app. The device runs for about 10 minutes, though most germs can be killed in five, according to a document posted on the school’s website.

“Anything the light touches, it kills that virus or that bacteria,” said Carla Yaglou, business manager at St. Ambrose Church and School.

The tower is one of two UV-C radiation methods the school invested in last summer as preparation for student reentry in the fall. The second was installing fixtures that emit UV-C lighting downstream of the air filters in the building ventilation system. The technology can run 24 hours a day and neutralizes germs, preventing contaminated air from being circulated throughout the building.

Yaglou said the school was fortunate it ordered the $6,000-worth of UV-C equipment in early June, because by late summer the demand was much higher. St. Ambrose is the only school in Virginia currently using UV-C technology, as far as Yaglou and Principal Maria Tejada know.

Tejada, who joined the school as principal heading into the 2020-21 school year, was apprehensive at first as she planned for the return of students ranging from preschool to eighth grade.

“When I was researching and writing my reentry plan, I did it with a lot of hesitation because I didn’t know if opening the schools was going to be a good thing for the students and my faculty and staff,” she said. “So, it was a lot of stress.”

The school implemented “strict policies and procedures,” according to Tejada, which were outlined in a reentry plan released last August. Precautions included wearing masks, social distancing, daily health assessments and temperature checks, and the UV-C radiation. In addition, the school hired a part-time maintenance employee to clean throughout the day.

Tejada estimates the school to be 99 percent in person — of the 198 students, only three high-risk students are fully online. Other students have the option to distance learn temporarily if they need to quarantine or are waiting for a doctor’s clearance to return to the classroom. The school also grew, from around 170 last year to just under 200 this year.  

St. Ambrose has had three COVID-19 cases, all of which were identified off the school’s premises and didn’t contribute to spread, Tejada said.

She said the plan has been successful and proved the school can safely be open. “We can do it and we can do it well,” she said. “I think our little school has proved that we can educate the child. We can help them be in school because their mental health is as important as academics.” 

And even though COVID-19 cases in Fairfax County are high, Tejada believes the school will stay open with the measures put in place.

“Our teachers want to be here and they have the same vision that I had, that we needed to open the school for (the students),” she said. “Because at the end of the day, that’s our mission, we’re here for them — the students.”

Bartlett can be reached at Meghan.bartlett@catholicherald.com.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021