Across the United States, there are roughly 80,000 public school institutions spanning an estimated 100,000 school buildings. And, yes—that is solely public schools. These 2021 estimates do not account for the many additional alternative, charter and private school institutions.
At the time of high school graduation, the average student has spent over 15,000 hours in school buildings. Also notable: Nearly 20% of the American population spend their daily lives in primary and secondary school settings. (Don’t forget the many school administrators, office and support staff, food services, maintenance and custodial workers, nurses and auxiliary staff in addition to faculty, teachers and students!) Furthermore, K-12 public school enrollment is projected to grow to 56.8 million students by 2026.
These are just a sampling of striking statistics regarding primary and secondary education in America today. It’s also why school indoor air quality matters.
The fact that humans spend a majority of time indoors, and that indoor air is often more polluted than outdoor air, are realities the general public is more aware of than ever before. The first indoor space you spend a majority of your time in is your home. For the average American, the second is your place of work. But for children and teenagers, that indoor space is school.
And while it’s easy to think of school indoor air quality as a current pandemic concern, school IAQ has been a significant matter for many years. It’s not that school indoor air quality matters now, it’s that school indoor air quality truly matters now and in the future.
Why Does School Building Air Quality Matter Anyway?
It’s a common assumption that the indoor spaces we occupy have a minimal impact on daily life. Yet, the opposite is true. The quality of our indoor environments has a considerable impact on human health and wellbeing. That, of course, includes school buildings. Moreover, considering the many hours that students, staff and teachers clock every year living, learning and working in school buildings—a school’s indoor environment and air quality should be a top factor.
To put it simply: improving school building air is important because countless studies show that a majority of schools’ indoor air quality is poor. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates 46% of all public schools suffer poor indoor environmental quality. And 50% of schools self-report unhealthy indoor air quality. These concerns are not limited to a small portion of the population either, rather affecting countless persons annually.
Research also shows that a school building’s indoor health and air quality directly impacts school occupants’ productivity, comfort and health as well as student academic performance and attendance and teacher retention rates. Let’s break down these important categories.
Health Effects of Poor Indoor Air Quality
A top concern? Health. Ongoing exposure to poor indoor air quality causes both short-term and long-term health risks. Noticing long-term health effects in the now is illogical. Noticing short-term health effects, however, is possible. Here are some of the most common physical symptoms from indoor pollution exposure:
- Shortness of breath
- Sinus congestion
- Eye/throat/nose irritation
- Allergic reactions
- Worsening asthma symptoms and/or attacks
- Respiratory illnesses
These symptoms can be subtle and are often misinterpreted for other illnesses, making it difficult to identify poor IAQ as the culprit. Symptoms also vary greatly between people, even among those exposed to the same source or for the same amount of time. Indoor pollutants also affect certain groups differently, presenting particular challenges for vulnerable populations.
School-age children are considered a vulnerable group. Their developing bodies are more susceptible to air pollution exposure. Why? Partly because children breathe in more air in proportion to their body weight compared to adults.
Consequences of Unhealthy School Air Quality
Adverse health effects aren’t the only result of school indoor air pollution. Harmful air quality also affects student attendance, comfort and academic performance. It might sound like a stretch at first, but the research has proven these connections again and again. Respiratory conditions and absenteeism rates share a close association. A significant concern as 1 in 13 school-age children suffer from asthma, a condition easily exacerbated by poor air quality. Indoor comfort (think temperature and humidity levels) plays a role in concentration and productivity as well as academic success. One study surveyed high school students on exam day and found a 12.3% higher likelihood of students failing an exam on 90 degrees Fahrenheit day compared to 75 degrees Fahrenheit day.
Teachers and staff experience similar consequences—impacting job performance and productivity. In one survey, 80% of teachers cited facility conditions as a factor in their teaching quality. A healthy indoor environment also plays an important role in teacher retention.
And finally, poor IAQ affects the school itself. As an institution, unhealthy air quality increases the likelihood of school closings, potentially strains community-parent-teacher relationships and might result in negative publicity, community trust or even liability issues. Poor school building air quality also reduces HVAC equipment lifespan and efficiency, resulting in higher utility costs and replacement expenses later.
How Does Air Quality Affect Learning?
The connection between indoor environmental quality, healthy indoor air and student success is so established that the EPA recognizes and advocates for high-performance school design. A high-performance school building is one that improves the physical learning environment facility while saving energy, resources and money. High-performance schools result in higher average test scores and improved student performance.
High-performance schools also prioritize regular maintenance and operation to ensure proper system function. A lack of maintenance is tied to increased asthma and allergy symptoms. In fact, schools that are on top of maintenance needs not only have a higher daily attendance rate but even have lower dropout rates.
How Can Schools Improve Indoor Air Quality?
The good news is that a majority of school indoor air quality problems can be prevented and resolved.
Healthy School IAQ
To achieve good school air quality, it’s important to first understand what is considered good school IAQ. For school buildings, EPA defines good IAQ management as:
- Control of airborne pollutants
- Inundation and distribution of outdoor air
- Adequate temperature and indoor relative humidity levels
School Air Quality Solutions
Whether you are a parent of a student, a teacher or faculty member, facility manager, school administrator or a student yourself—hopefully, it’s helpful to know that there are many IAQ solutions available. Each school setting is different and will benefit from a different application or combination of air quality solutions. Most important of all to keep in mind: the cost and effort of taking preventive action are easier and less expensive than resolving IAQ issues down the road.
Temperature & Humidity Control
Studies show that cooler classroom temperatures have a positive impact on student performance. Similar to temperature regulation, humidity control is hand-in-hand with comfort, yet often overlooked. The ideal indoor relative humidity range is 40-60%. A mid-level benefits health, building quality and concentration.
Ventilation has been a huge school building talking point throughout the pandemic. The benefits of ventilation, however, are not limited to COVID mitigation. Regardless, schools should opt for whole-building balanced mechanical ventilation. This system increases the amount of incoming fresh filtered outdoor air and increases air changes per hour.
Another ventilation air quality tip is to utilize spot ventilation. Also known as local ventilation, this includes running restroom exhaust fans, kitchen hood fans or science lab exhaust systems.
Source control for schools takes three main forms. First, simply eliminate pollution sources. An example is not allowing buses to idle during drop-off and pick-up to reduce exhaust emissions. A second step is to replace sources. For example, switching polluting cleaning products to nontoxic cleaning supplies instead. And finally, having a better awareness of pollutant spiking events. This could mean facility administration opting for maintenance or system replacements over the weekend or on holiday breaks rather than a school night.
For our purposes, air cleaning encompasses both purification and filtration. There are many high-efficiency air filter options, portable and whole-building air purifier models to choose from that benefit school building indoor air quality. An IAQ expert can help determine the highest air filtration level possible for your school building system.
Routine preventive maintenance, system checks and timely filter changes all help the HVAC system work properly. Preventive actions, particularly for large public-use buildings such as schools, are critical for good indoor air quality.
Barriers to Improving School IAQ
Discussing the importance of good school air quality and explaining how to improve school IAQ also requires acknowledging one of the top barriers to healthy schools. Funding for public primary and secondary school institutions is based on local community wealth and thus is largely inequitable. Not every school has the means to complete a full revamp or redesign to become a high-performance school. Instead, the important takeaway is that any and every single indoor environment intervention will improve air quality. Even the seemingly smallest changes can make a huge difference. What matters is taking action.
Looking Beyond the Pandemic
The current focus on school indoor air quality is tied to the coronavirus pandemic. That being so, many are still looking at school building air as a temporary concern. The countless health, wellness, success and performance benefits from good school indoor air quality hopefully help counteract such viewpoints.
Improving school building infrastructure with a focus on indoor air quality does have short-term health benefits and is an important pandemic mitigation strategy. But the solutions, updates and steps taken today, will have lasting benefits. Reducing indoor air pollution in classrooms and educational settings improves learning and teaching for current and future students and teachers.