Healthy Learning

10 tips for providing school facilities that protect the health and safety of students and staff

A school facility should offer students an environment that gives them an opportunity to learn and grow. But even with the most skilled teachers and comprehensive curriculum, a school may have difficulty meeting those ideals if the conditions of its facilities are inadequate.

School facilities have many elements that, if they are not properly cleaned and maintained, can lead to injuries and illnesses. Here are 10 areas school administrators should keep in mind as they try to make sure their buildings are a safe and healthy setting for students and teachers:

Proper flooring

Depending on the area of a school, carpet, tile or another type of flooring might be appropriate. In all cases, schools must be vigilant that the flooring is maintained properly to assure the health and safety of students and staff.

Carpet generally is considered more comfortable than resilient flooring, provides better sound control and retains heat longer. But carpeting typically requires more effort to clean. The U.S. Department of Energy's Best Practices Manual for Building High Performance Schools says that to maintain good air quality, schools should clean regularly with a vacuum cleaner that has a high-performance filtration bag. Spills must be cleaned up immediately and thoroughly. If carpet becomes saturated and water is not quickly removed, carpeting probably will have to be discarded.

Resilient flooring is a good choice for heavily traveled areas that need a durable surface that can be cleaned easily and that don't need the acoustic benefits of carpeting. For all kinds of flooring surfaces, walk-off mats placed at entrances and exits will absorb dirt and prevent it from getting tracked through the school.

Sanitary washrooms

A survey conducted in September by Opinion Research Corporation for Kimberly-Clark Professional found that nearly 20 percent of middle- and high-school students say they avoid school washrooms because of dirty or unsafe conditions. How students and the public at large perceive a school can be influenced by the condition of the building's washrooms. Unsanitary facilities can harm students' health and their attitude about school.

Keeping facilities clean and safe should be a priority for education institutions. Regularly scheduled cleaning and disinfecting can help control the spread of bacteria. Use of durable and vandal-resistant materials can deter students from leaving graffiti on the walls and stalls. Faucets, toilets and dryers controlled automatically by sensors give students less opportunity to tinker with equipment. Open-door designs allow teachers to monitor washroom behavior more easily, and placement of sinks outside the washroom reduces the time students spend outside the eyes of teachers.

Consistent maintenance

As education institutions grow and become more complex, building maintenance involves more than a broom and a mop. To keep track of the different equipment, supplies and staff needed to keep a facility well-maintained, schools and universities can benefit by adopting a program that helps them manage their cleaning and maintenance operations.

That involves knowing the right cleaning regimen for the various surfaces found in educational settings; training workers properly so they are aware of the latest technology, equipment and safety steps; and creating a schedule that allows workers to clean buildings most effectively with the least disruption to classroom instruction.

Indoor air quality

IAQ is especially important in schools because most students are still developing their respiratory systems, their immune systems are less effective than an adult's, and their higher metabolic rates cause them to breathe more air and retain more toxins, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Environmental Protection Agency's “Tools For Schools” program recommends these steps for maintaining good air quality: clean the building regularly and thoroughly; fill drain traps regularly; use local exhaust fans to prevent pollution from accumulating in an area; make sure that ventilation systems have good air flow, that coils are clean and air intake is unobstructed; and situate printing and duplicating equipment in areas with adequate exhaust.

Preventing mold

A subset of indoor air quality, but a critical one for schools, is mold remediation. Many school facilities are plagued with mold problems because of deferred maintenance that allows moisture to seep into buildings, and construction methods that didn't provide adequate ventilation. Unchecked, mold can lead to serious health problems for students and staff.

To prevent mold, the EPA recommends that schools should fix leaks and clean up condensation and wet spots quickly; maintain proper temperature and humidity; and perform regular inspections and maintenance of HVAC systems.

Daylighting

For many years, schools were built with fewer windows to make air conditioning more efficient, reduce external noise, lower maintenance costs and bolster security.

Now schools are finding that in addition to the potential for greater energy efficiency, natural daylight is perceived to be warmer and more appealing than the fluorescent light typically found in a school building. Studies have shown that students perform better in well-designed classrooms illuminated by daylight. Windows and skylights that bring natural light into a school, but prevent distracting glares and shadows, can create a more comfortable and pleasing environment for students and teachers.

Good acoustics

Students can't learn effectively if they can't hear what their teachers or fellow students are saying. “Research indicates that high levels of background noise, much of it from heating and cooling systems, adversely affect learning environments, particularly for young children, who require optimal conditions for hearing and comprehension,” according to the U.S. Access Board, which is responsible for establishing standards for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The standards recommended by the Access Board state that unoccupied classrooms should have a maximum background noise of 35 decibels and reverberation time of 0.6 to 0.7 seconds. Compliance with the standards is voluntary unless they are incorporated into a building code adopted by a state or municipality.

Avoid volatile organic compounds (VOCs)

VOCs are emitted from interior materials such as paints, adhesives, sealants, carpeting, flooring, furniture and ceiling panels. They can cause health problems. For example, carpeting can “off-gas” VOCs when it is first installed. To dissipate these potentially dangerous gases, schools should air out areas during and after carpet installation.

“The typical recommendation is to continuously operate the building ventilation system at normal temperature and maximum outdoor air during installation and for 72 hours after installation is completed,” says the Department of Energy's Best Practices Manual for Building High Performance Schools.

The manual states that VOC emissions generally are highest immediately after a new product is installed or a finish is applied, but emissions may continue for months. Actual emission rates will be affected by the ventilation conditions, indoor temperature and humidity conditions. Even with low VOC-emitting materials, it is important to provide ventilation during and after installation. The manual recommends that, prior to substantial completion of a school, each building be flushed out with 100 percent outside air for about 15 days, or as long as possible, to remove any remaining odor and VOCs.

Ergonomic furniture

As learning environments become more flexible and computers become more integral to classrooms, students may sit in several places during the school day. Computer equipment and seating should be adjustable so that students can sit comfortably in front of a computer screen. Improper posture can cause back pain, eyestrain, and hand and wrist problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

To reduce student health risks, the American Occupational Therapy Association recommends that schools buy new chairs and desks in different sizes to fit different-size students, or adjustable chairs and desks that can expand as children grow. The Cornell University Ergonomics website (http://ergo.human.cornell.edu/) recommends that chairs for student workstations have adjustable heights and back supports, and armrests that pivot and can be adjusted for height and width. Adjustable keyboard trays and mouse platforms also will allow a student to use a computer while maintaining the proper posture.

Computer monitors should be positioned at eye level to avoid neck and shoulder strain. If monitors are resting on a flat table or desktop, place them on a stable platform to bring them up to the proper level. Teachers should give students stretch breaks to ease the strain, and schools should consider installing a software program that reminds students to take periodic breaks. Students at computer workstations should have their feet resting on the floor to avoid back strain and pressure that disrupts circulation.

Well-maintained roofs

It's a truism in building maintenance that by the time you discover a leak, it's too late to prevent serious damage. So it's critical for schools to ward off potential roof problems before they become troublesome leaks. Roofing maintenance experts recommend that a roof be inspected twice a year, a goal that many school maintenance staffs are too short-staffed to meet.

But the maintenance and inspection shortcuts that save time and money in the short run may become expensive headaches in the long run when undetected leaks lead to structural damage to walls and ceilings, and create an environment conducive to dangerous mold growth. Roof inspectors and maintenance workers should always be looking for potential roof troubles — blisters, loose flashing and ceiling stains — so they can prevent more serious damage.

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U. 

TAGS: Daylighting
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