For many years, education institutions have been embracing the green schools movement and its emphasis on environmentally friendly, energy-efficient facilities.
The efforts to make students, staff, administrators and the community at large more cognizant of how school facilities are using resources and affecting the environment may have been considered by some to be a noble cause, but not necessarily essential to the teaching and learning taking place in those facilities.
But the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the nationwide shutdown of school facilities that followed has put advocacy for green schools in a different light. Anyone connected to the education system could see that the embrace of the green school agenda was more than just support for turning down thermostats, switching off lights and recycling empty containers. In a world coping to survive the spread of a deadly disease, the strategies advocated by the green schools movement, specifically those related to indoor air quality, were now seen as a front-line defense to protect the health and safety of students and staff.
“The focus on a clean and healthy environment, whether it be at home or at school, was a reality in Covid,” says Phoebe Beierle, senior manager of programs for the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council. “It really helped people understand the importance of that when it comes to our schools. When schools can’t keep their doors open because the ventilation in the building is not appropriate to keep kids safe, people pay attention. It becomes a reality that’s hard to ignore, and it becomes a learning experience.”
Like other catastrophes that have shined a light on underreported school-related crises, the Covid-19 and the campus closings that disrupted society made it impossible for people to ignore the deficiencies of many school buildings in the United States.
“What came to light during Covid was that our school infrastructure is crumbling and that it is inadequately maintained across the country, especially in underserved communities and communities in poverty,” Beierle says. “The pandemic really highlighted how interconnected our systems are and how addressing only one solution is really not going to be a resilient solution long term.
That was especially true regarding indoor air quality. A Government Accountability Office report in 2020 estimated that as many as 36,000 of the nation’s 100,000 public school buildings are likely in need of HVAC system upgrades or replacement, but what made the problem more immediate for many people was when health experts determined that Covid-19 was an airborne disease that spreads more easily in enclosed spaces with poor ventilation.
“The communities that have been suffering with poor infrastructure have known about this—inadequate indoor air quality is something that they deal with every day,” Beierle says. “It just hadn’t risen to the level of crisis because schools have all these other crises.”
“Covid elevated it to a national profile,” she continued. “It wasn’t just the poor communities that were suffering—everybody was suffering, either because their schools weren’t designed or weren’t operated in a way to meet the environmental health and safety standards to combat Covid.”
To see how U.S. schools have been addressing indoor air quality in the pandemic, the Center for Green Schools conducted a survey of school district facility managers and generated a report in May 2022, Managing Air Quality during the Pandemic: How K-12 Schools Addressed Air Quality in the Second Year of Covid-19.
The center gathered data on what steps schools had been taking to make the indoor environment safe for occupants. It received survey responses from more than 4,000 schools representing over 2.6 million students.
The most prevalent building engineering control measure schools carried out was increasing outdoor air intake through HVAC systems. Another strategy, improving filtration, was not feasible at many schools because the HVAC systems in their buildings were not designed to accommodate the higher-efficiency filters that were most effective at removing airborne contaminants.
Some survey participants said they were skeptical about the value of standalone filtration devices in classrooms, but teachers felt they were beneficial.
“The strategy of using standalone filtration devices in classrooms...was met with some hesitation due to doubts about the long-term sustainability related to maintenance,” the Center said. “There was uncertainty about how to think about long-term use of portable air cleaners post-pandemic, and districts did not wish to acquire many new devices that might potentially turn into ‘junk’ later on.”
But many teachers liked having the standalone cleaners because they provided tangible evidence that their schools were using some visible airborne infection control measure within indoor spaces.
“Focus group participants noted that contributions of the HVAC system were less trusted by teachers and staff, perhaps because they were less conspicuous given their integration into the building, and perhaps because the HVAC system actually did have low capacity to deliver outdoor air or recirculated filtered air,” the report said.
The center also found that schools were more likely to use federal Covid aid to carry out indoor air quality improvements rather than funds from their operating or capital budgets.
Non-urban districts were more likely to depend on state and local guidance, and urban districts were more likely to use federal guidance or guidance from national organizations like then American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers.
More than a quarter of districts said they had no plans to carry out additional ventilation, filtration or other building changes in schools.
School personnel also reported being confused by the need to sort through a lot of rapidly changing information related to which Covid-19 controls to prioritize—and a barrage of marketing for air cleaning devices—to make decisions that would be accepted by the broader community.
The report concludes that school systems need greater support to deal with Covid and future outbreaks that may threaten public health.
“The results highlight the urgent need to better support school districts with implementation of airborne infection control strategies to mitigate the immediate Covid-19 threat, as well as future pandemics, seasonal epidemics and to improve the overall indoor air quality,” the survey’s executive summary concludes. “Widespread education of school system administrators and staff is needed to ensure that they are aware of both the widely agreed-upon indoor air quality recommendations and the parameters around the use of federal Covid-19 relief funds on indoor air quality measures.”
But dealing with Covid has helped many school leaders become more educated about what is needed to achieve good air quality in their facilities.
“I would say that school systems have become much more knowledgeable about the infrastructure they have—what works well and what doesn’t, and where the areas are that need improvement,” Beierle says. “We have demonstrated that there is a serious need and a big gap in the infrastructure needs in our schools. We need to continue investing in it or it will continue to present problems.”
Beierle says the environmentally friendly policies advocated by Center for Green Schools and the Green Building Council address widespread needs and apply to more than just the Covid crisis.
“All the policies that we have promoted for two decades at the U.S.G.B.C. are solutions that have been helpful in the time of Covid and also can be helpful in the times of poor air quality outside, if you in an urban environment or where there’s wildfire smoke.”
The lesson that the Center for Green Schools hopes people learn from addressing IAQ and Covid is that providing good indoor air quality is more than a green schools issue—it’s a public health necessity.
“Sustainable, good air quality is a positive thing,” Beierle says. “It helps us perform better. Good air quality is not just something that is attributable to green schools and sustainability. It’s a reality that most people can relate to.”
Kennedy, senior editor, can be reached at [email protected].
Connecticut creates $150 million grant program for HVAC system upgrades in schools
The state of Connecticut is allocating $150 million toward a grant program supporting upgrades for HVAC systems in the state's public schools.
The grants will supplement more than $165 million that schools have already committed for air filtration improvements since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. The earlier funding came from the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.
Gov. Ned Lamont says the grants will provide schools with a dedicated source of funding to support additional infrastructure upgrades.
“One thing the Covid-19 pandemic showed is that many school buildings in our state, particularly those that are of a certain age, are in serious need of air quality improvements,” Lamont says. “Modernized ventilation systems provide an important public health function that filtrate the air and reduce airborne contaminants, including particles containing viruses.”
Examples of eligible projects:
- Replacing, upgrading, or repairing boilers and other heating and ventilation components
- Replacing controls and technology systems related to HVAC operations
- Installing or upgrading air conditioning or ventilation systems
Distribution of the grants will be prioritized based on the age and condition of the existing HVAC system or equipment being replaced or upgraded; existing air quality issues at the school; the age and condition of the school building; the master plan of the district in question; the availability of maintenance records; and a contract or plans for the routine maintenance and cleaning of the HVAC system.