The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has put greater emphasis on public health in school facilities.

Education officials around the nation have rolled out significant improvements in an effort to make sure that schools are safer than ever for students and staff—from social distancing measures to mask mandates, surface disinfecting guidelines and testing regimens.

But what about cleaner air?

Most people generally are aware that outdoor air pollution can negatively influence health and well-being. But they may tend to downplay the effect that indoor air pollution can have on occupants’ health and performance.

It goes without saying that education institutions should prioritize clean indoor air as they deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. But the costs and benefits of air quality in schools are not limited to the effects of Covid-19.

The same poor indoor air quality (IAQ) that has made the spread of Covid-19 such a hazard in school facilities also creates a breeding ground for moisture and molds, radon and asthma triggers. In some school buildings, outdoor pollutants, such as vehicle exhaust, are able to seep indoors.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the levels of human exposure to indoor air pollutants typically may be two to five times (and sometimes as much as 100 times) higher than outdoor levels.

“Comparative risk studies performed by EPA's Science Advisory Board have consistently ranked indoor air pollution among the top five environmental risks to public health,” the EPA says. “Good IAQ is an important component of a healthy indoor environment and can help schools reach their primary goal of educating children.”

An EPA presentation on indoor air quality and student health and academic performance states that when the average indoor air quality in a school facility is worse, it has a negative overall effect on health and consequently, performance in school.

“Scientific evidence demonstrating the relationship between IAQ and human performance and productivity is becoming more robust,” the EPA says.

In one study cited by the EPA, students in classrooms with higher outdoor air ventilation rates scored 14 to 15 percent higher on standardized test scores than children in classrooms with lower outdoor air ventilation rates.

Absenteeism and poor performance

The EPA draws a straight line from poor indoor air quality to increased exposure to germs and pollutants, to increased absenteeism, and from increased absenteeism to poorer performance in school.

Improving the indoor air quality in a school facility tends to increase productivity and improve the performance of mental tasks, such as concentration and recall. Conversely, evidence shows a direct relationship between performance decreases and student absences.

Schools that are well maintained and have better physical conditions show improved academic performance; schools with fewer janitorial staff and higher maintenance backlogs show poorer academic performance.

In short, indoor air quality matters.

So what can schools do about indoor air quality, in this pandemic-stricken landscape, where everyday air pollution problems have collided with once-in-a-lifetime airborne viruses to create a superstorm of threats to student and staff well-being every time people are anywhere indoors in a group?

The answer is for education institutions to take this invisible threat more seriously and commit to proactively managing the air quality in school environments.

Longstanding problem

For many years, poor indoor air quality has plagued U.S. education facilities. In the 1990s, more than half of all school facilities tested were found to have indoor air quality problems, and little has changed since.

Now, the deadly strength of Covid-19 over the last two years has forced those who work indoors in schools or other facilities to pay more attention to the invisible threats in the air. The pandemic has brought tragedy to nearly every corner of the world, but in some cases it has created an opportunity to improve indoor air quality and make schools safer and more healthful.

Education institutions have been given a chance to invest in better air, and by extension, a chance to enhance the well-being for students, teachers, and staff.

Schools’ financial ability to make that investment received a massive boost from more than $122 billion in Covid relief aid that Congress has allocated for school improvements. School systems should take advantage of the assistance by earmarking some portion of the federal aid for facility upgrades that will result in improved indoor air quality.

Cleaning technologies

In response to Covid-19, technologies have emerged to detect the coronavirus, mitigate its effect, and protect students and staff who depend on good indoor air quality to keep them safe.  These advances in technologies need to be used in a coherent and coordinated manner to ensure the health and well-being of students.

From optimizing HVAC systems and upgrading the quality of air filtration to UV-light disinfecting machinery, schools need to take air quality seriously by conducting air quality audits and planning for summer upgrades.

With the right combination of government funding and new technology, schools can upgrade the indoor air quality in their facilities. The finances and the tools are there for any institution that seeks them. The question is whether school systems will answer the call.

Chuck Morrison is chief executive officer at INVZBL, a provider of UV-C disinfection products.


Prioritizing HVAC upgrades

The American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund has provided $122 billion in aid to help school systems return to regular operations in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The rules governing how the money can be spent says that schools are permitted to use ESSER funds to upgrade their HVAC systems, and many districts have opted to do so.

Improving HVAC in the nation’s schools has been recognized as a critical need even before Covid focused renewed attention on how air quality affects students and staff.

A Government Accountability Office survey released in June 2020 found that about 41 percent of districts needed to update or replace heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in at least half of their schools, representing about 36,000 schools.

A recent analysis of ESSER allocations shows that districts in poor areas are more likely than affluent areas to use their federal relief funds to renovate aging ventilation systems in their school facilities.

FutureEd, an education think tank based at Georgetown University, looked at ESSER spending plans of more than 2,600 school districts. The research found that the higher the poverty rate among a school district’s student population, the more likely the district has earmarked relief funding for renovating aging ventilation systems and other school repairs.

Among the 10 percent most affluent districts studied, about a third planned to spend Covid relief funds on HVAC upgrades. Among the 10 percent of districts with the most children in poverty, about two-thirds are planning HVAC improvements. HVAC upgrades are the top priority for use of ESSER funds among poorer districts

“Baltimore City Public Schools in Maryland is planning to spend nearly $47 upgrade units in six schools and install an entire system in a new high school,” FutureEd says. “The district, where a third of the 79,000 students qualify for Title I services, has long struggled with faltering infrastructure and has actually shut down schools on days when temperatures were too hot or too cold.”

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