Ensuring the Future

Nov. 1, 2005
Improving the school environment for students can provide a noticeable return on investment.

It's hard to be a school professional these days. There seems to be an increasing number of demands, but the time, money and public support needed to bring about school improvements seem to be declining. This is especially true when considering buildings and grounds, which often get a seat at the back of the class.

A number of new, affordable tools are available to help build and maintain schools that improve the health of the indoor environment without harming the environment.

Tools for schools

Schools are the daily workplaces of more than 55 million Americans, the vast majority of them children. Because of deferred or inadequate maintenance, more than half of these densely occupied and heavily used community facilities pose significant health risks. Poor ventilation, mold, peeling lead paint, asbestos, pesticides, chemicals, and other indoor and outdoor contaminants put students and staff at risk.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has estimated that more than 15 million children are in schools that threaten their health. The GAO and National Center for Education Statistics have estimated that 30 to 40 percent of schools have poor indoor air. The GAO also has reported that one-third of public schools need new or upgraded roofs, walls and plumbing, as well as new or updated heating, electrical and lighting systems.

The problems facing America's schools are significant, but there is reason for optimism. Many tools and resources are available or under development to assist schools, and they fall into three general areas: audit tools, operations of existing buildings, and guidelines for construction of new buildings.

Audit tools

Schools are complex systems, and the challenges they pose can be overwhelming as greater demands are placed on aging facilities with limited, and often shrinking operations and maintenance resources. This is especially true when buy-in is necessary from a diverse group of stakeholders — parents, teachers, administrators, unions and the public. Audit tools can clearly identify health, safety and environmental issues, and the results can help generate support, and identify opportunities and priorities.

Washington State has published the Health and Safety Guide for K-12 Schools. The guide contains sections on inspection protocols, agency roles and responsibilities, restricted chemicals in laboratories, special considerations for art classrooms, references, websites and related documents.

Another reference is the Los Angeles Unified School District Office of Environmental Health and Safety's OEHS Safe School Inspection Program, which is designed to periodically assess health and safety conditions in district facilities. Trained staff visit each school site to identify hazards, evaluate safety planning and assist site administrators in preparing for emergencies. The guidebook assists school administrators in the early detection of health and safety risks.

Another set of state programs comes from New York, which has developed a three-step process for addressing school issues. The audit tools are not quite as detailed as those from Washington State or Los Angeles, but the “process” coordinates requirements that would be applicable to other states, as well as large school districts.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's “Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Tools for Schools” (TfS) kit shows schools how to carry out a practical plan of action to improve indoor-air problems at little or no cost, using straightforward activities and in-house staff. In addition to TfS, the EPA's Indoor Environments Division recently has launched a new IAQ Building Education and Assessment Model (I-BEAM). I-BEAM integrates IAQ, energy efficiency and building economics into a new IAQ management tool for schools and commercial buildings.

Existing schools

The opportunities to make improvements are practically limitless in existing schools. One of the most innovative “integrated” projects in schools is the Pittsburgh High Performance School Partnership. What makes this project innovative is that the “integration” includes not only facility-related issues, but also opportunities to incorporate “green” into the curriculum and the neighborhood.

The Pittsburgh model also highlights stakeholder involvement. Far too often, innovative projects run out of steam as time passes and enthusiasm wanes. In Pittsburgh, five local universities, two state agencies, not-for-profit environmental groups and local residents created the critical mass to sustain the project.

Another important effort to help existing buildings comes from the U.S. Green Building Council. Enormous opportunities are present within existing buildings to address impacts on the environment and occupant health, productivity and performance.

Along these lines, the U.S. Green Building Council is developing a LEED Green Building Rating System for Existing Buildings (LEED-EB), a set of performance standards for the sustainable operation of existing buildings.

Some useful tools are available to school officials and parents. Some examples: the “Parent Guide to School Indoor Air Quality,” “Healthier Cleaning & Maintenance Practices and Products” and the “Environmental Action Guide for New York State Schools: Help for Parents and Others in the Absence of Standards Just for Children.”

New construction

High-performance schools achieve these goals by using a whole-building, integrated-design strategy that incorporates the best of today's ideas and technologies. From the beginning of the design process, each of the building elements (windows, walls, building materials, air-conditioning, landscaping) must be considered as part of an integrated system of interacting components. Choices in one area often affect other building systems; integrated design leverages these interactions to maximize the overall building performance.

In California, the Collaborative for High Performance Schools aims to increase the energy efficiency of public schools by marketing information, service and incentive programs directly at school districts and designers. The goal is to facilitate the design of high-performance schools: environments that are not only energy efficient, but also healthy, comfortable, well-lighted and filled with the amenities needed for a high-quality education.

Another important public advocacy effort focuses on school siting and new construction. The Center for Health, Environment and Justice is writing a primer entitled, How to Build A Green School. It seeks to provide community members, parent organizations, teachers, maintenance personnel, administrators and school board members with concrete guidelines and explanations to build or renovate a school that is environmentally friendly and high-performing.

Ashkin is president of The Ashkin Group, Bloomington, Ind., a consulting firm specializing in greening the cleaning process, and a member of the International Custodial Advisors Network (ICAN). He has more than 20 years of management experience in the chemical industry and chaired the task force that wrote the national cleaning standard.

Perfect attendance

Cleaning as a cost-effective health intervention strategy can significantly reduce illnesses and absenteeism. The American Journal of Infection Control reported on a two-year study by Dr. Leonard Krilov at a specialized school for children with Down syndrome. He demonstrated a 24 percent decline in total illnesses, a 34 percent decline in doctor visits, a 15 percent decline in courses of antibiotics, and a 46 percent decline in absenteeism.

The program's major components were educating and training school personnel in issues of infection control, an increased emphasis on environmental cleaning and disinfection, and compliance monitoring. Some of the specific strategies and procedures included cleaning infant classrooms first and changing mop water every fourth classroom. Bathrooms were cleaned last. Additionally, there was a specific focus on surfaces and objects that children handled frequently. This included cleaning safety seats and hand rails on buses, and cleaning toys three times per week.

These reductions may help improve student performance; more classroom time provides more opportunity for learning. Furthermore, for districts that receive reimbursements based on attendance, reducing absenteeism can have an enormous impact on funding.

Additional resources

Audit tools

Existing buildings

  • LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) for Existing Buildings, U.S. Green Building Council, www.usgbc.org, (202)828-7422.

  • Healthy Schools Network, www.healthyschools.org, (518)462-0632.

New construction

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