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In response to COVID-19, Las Cruces middle schoolers are taking action to improve the air quality of their school

Jonny Coker
Mesilla Valley Leadership Academy sixth graders pose in front of a Corsi-Rosenthal filter that they built.
Las Cruces middle schoolers take action to improve the air quality of their school

At Mesilla Valley Leadership Academy in Las Cruces, middle schoolers are taking action and protecting themselves against COVID-19 and other pollutants. The class began building homemade air filters, known as Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, after Lily Haussamen, a sixth-grader, put forth the idea after building the filters with her father, who was hit hard by COVID-19 in August of 2021.

“I decided that was a good idea for not only his protection, but also everyone else’s because it helps stop the spread of viruses, and the principal agreed,” she said. “So then we talked to my science teacher and she was really interested, and we made a bunch of them.”

Lily said that she’s happy to be engaging in a project that helps keep the people around her safer.

“I do think they should be used more. They’re kind of underrated. They’re not exactly the prettiest, but that’s not really what counts, it’s what they do for us,” she said.

Lily said that it’s important to make sure the box fan is oriented correctly in order to avoid having to spend time rebuilding. She added that, for those who may not like the noise created by the filters, a taller box makes filtration quieter.

A fully built Corsi-Rosenthal box.
Diana Alba Soular
New Mexico Journalism Collaborative
A fully built Corsi-Rosenthal box.

Heath Haussamen is Lily’s father. When he got COVID-19 in August of 2021, he went from regularly working out to having health problems, and still experiences what is known as long-haul symptoms.

“It was like 15 months that I was essentially disabled and unable to do very much. I started to improve again just in September. My brain is working again, my body is working again. I still have to manage it very carefully, but I’m doing a lot better than I have been.”

After becoming ill, Heath began researching air filters, and through social media, discovered the Corsi-Rosenthal filter - a relatively inexpensive homemade box filter, to help reduce virus transmission and improve air quality in his house.

“I really think, in addition to being a health and safety issue, it’s a really great educational exercise. And I know with our kids during the pandemic, it was a place to put their anxiety about COVID. That we’re doing something tangible that we can understand that makes a difference, [and to help not] feel as anxious,” he said.

Nine students at Mesilla Valley Leadership academy built a total of nine box fan filters in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and to help protect family members who may be vulnerable to the virus. Lily’s science teacher, Tracy Mikesell, said that building the air filters gave students a sense of control:

“[The pandemic] seemed like such a big problem, but this was a small piece of the problem that we could work on together to solve. And to make it as safe as we could for the students. And so they knew that we were doing the best we could to take care of them, and then with the filters, they had that extra … calmness of mind that school was a safe place.”

Mikesell said that teachers were buying commercial air filters, but the price was a significant setback for many, especially with high demand during the peak of the pandemic, with many commercial HEPA filters costing hundreds of dollars.

“Lily’s dad immediately approached us with the idea of building the box filters, and he gave me the information about it and said Lily would like to lead the ‘My Time,’ and here we want the kids to take as much control of their education as they can,” she said “So when we can put them in a leadership role, we do. So she taught the other students how to make the box fans. And they all worked together to make the box fans together for the classrooms and the cafeteria.”

Mesilla Valley Leadership Academy does not have a way to test the effectiveness of Corsi-Rosenthal boxes. However, there is research that shows that the filters do enhance indoor air quality.

Arizona State University's Dr. Megan Jehn talks Corsi-Rosenthal box filters

Megan Jehn, a professor and researcher at Arizona State University, has been working on projects surrounding the Corsi-Rosenthal boxes. She said that the homemade filters are highly effective, according to research data.

“They’ve been evaluated by the CDC, by other academic researchers. They work just as well, if not better, as commercial units for the fraction of the cost. And they can help push clean air into classrooms,” she said. “We know that they can reduce by about 70% your exposure to many common viruses and allergens.”

Jehn said that she feels that it’s important for individuals to monitor the quality of their air, and treat it the same way they would their water.

“Air quality is invisible, so we’re trying to do is try and make that invisible concept more visible to others. And so [we] think about what we can do to improve our health, and the health of those around us.”

Jehn said building a Corsi-Rosenthal box costs around $80 - $100 and is a great way to take matters into your own hands when it comes to indoor air quality. However, the filters don’t last forever and must be replaced every six to nine months in order to maintain effectiveness.

This story was produced in partnership with the Las Cruces Sun-News as part of the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative, which is covering COVID-19 rebuild with a solutions-based lens. As a disclosure, Diana Alba Soular, the SNMJC editor involved in this project, is a friend and former colleague of Heath Haussamen, who was interviewed for the story.

For more information, visit www.shesc.asu.edu/centers/CleanIndoorAir to learn how to build your own Corsi-Rosenthal Box.

Jonny Coker is a Multimedia Journalist for KRWG Public Media. He has lived in Southern New Mexico for most of his life, growing up in the small Village of Cloudcroft, and earning a degree in Journalism and Media Studies at New Mexico State University.