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Q&A: Back-to-School Indoor Air Quality

Answering common questions about school IAQ, back-to-school 2021 and offering helpful questions to ask your school or school district about healthy school buildings and air quality going forward.

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school IAq

Fall 2021 marks the second full academic year during the coronavirus pandemic. Whether student, parent, teacher or staff, you likely have questions about school indoor air quality. How to best create healthy school buildings continues as a frequent topic of late. We’re answering some of the most asked questions about general school IAQ concerns and those geared at this year’s back-to-school season! We’ve also thrown in a couple of important questions to consider asking your school or school district’s administration about air quality moving forward!

School Air Quality Basics

Q: How can you tell if your child is sick because of poor IAQ or indoor pollution exposure at school? What symptoms are considered IAQ related?

A: It can be difficult to determine if your child’s symptoms (or yours!) are IAQ-related or not. Many short-term IAQ exposure symptoms are easily confused for allergies, flu or the common cold. That’s because the symptoms are pretty similar. Physical symptoms range from headache and fatigue to sinus congestion, sneezing, coughing, shortness of breath and dizziness—just to name a few.

To best determine a possible IAQ cause, what you really want to look for are widespread symptoms among students. While reactions to indoor pollution exposure differ, ongoing health issues for several students are, at the very least, something to look into. Another option is noticing whether the symptoms come and go. Perhaps your child complains about feeling ill during the week but not on the weekend. For some, symptoms might dissipate once home after school. Also, take note of where the reactions and triggers are—inside and outside or only indoors? Finally, for a full evaluation, a doctor can confirm whether symptoms are IAQ-related.

Q: Does indoor air quality actually affect student performance?

A: The short answer: yes. Study after study proves the connection! Evidence from multiple research studies shows improved academic performance with improved indoor air quality. And the results are not limited to student success. Healthy school indoor air is also tied to reduced absenteeism, occupant concentration and teacher retention. You can read more about the impacts school building air quality has here.

Q: Aren’t school air quality concerns just a pandemic thing?

A: Indoor air quality was a concern before COVID, during and will continue to be a problem even when the pandemic is no longer a top-of-mind concern. Improving air quality and making school building upgrades results in both short-term and long-term health and safety benefits.

Back to School 2021

Q: What’s happening with air cleaners? Are they good or bad for air quality?

A: After a tumultuous 2020-2021 school year with many different IAQ control strategies, product recommendations and manufacturer claims about air quality solution capabilities, air purifiers bore the brunt. IAQ experts and scientists on Twitter and in the news continuously provided new information for students, parents and staff to better understand available school IAQ options.

With widespread funding for schools to pursue HVAC systems and IAQ upgrades in response to COVID-19, the consequences of no overarching regulations became clear. NBC News reported in May that officials are continuing to seek rules about schools’ indoor air quality products and solution choices.

A short summary: not every air cleaner is effective, not every air cleaner is dangerous, not every air cleaner is bad and not every air cleaner is good. What should you look for, or in reality, what should school administrators look for? If pursuing portable units, opt for HEPA level filtration and make sure the model is properly fitted for classroom size. If opting for whole-building HVAC system units, look for purification solutions that offer third-party testing data that verifies the manufacturer’s claims.

Q: Do air quality improvements impact mask requirements?

A: The CDC released updated guidance on school reopening recommendations before the new academic year. The big takeaway: recommended mask usage for in-person instruction regardless of vaccination status.

As professor and scientist Joseph Allen wrote for USA Today, there are actually a few caveats. CDC guidelines also say mask mandates should depend on community levels of transmission, vaccination rates and local outbreak case rates. This provides flexibility based on local conditions—as a small school in a rural town faces a drastically different situation compared to a large school in the suburbs or a school in an urban setting. Also, it places the emphasis on returning to in-person instruction.

So, while air quality decisions made at the school do not impact mask recommendations from the CDC … the focus on providing in-person education means creating the healthiest and safest indoor space possible is critical. That means school IAQ should be at the top of the list.

Q: What do IAQ experts recommend for school buildings to reopen?

Since the start of the pandemic, numerous official organizations have offered guidelines and recommendations for school reopening plans. For this year’s back-to-school season, refresh your memory on two of the top reopening guidances. Check out our guides summarizing the CDC’s original guidelines released earlier this year and Harvard’s Healthy Building Program’s school reopening recommendations.

IAQ Questions To Consider Asking School Administrators

There is absolutely no reason that you should be in the dark about your or your child’s school’s IAQ reopening decisions. Here are a few important and helpful questions to ask facility and school administration to better understand the indoor air quality situation.

Q: How has the IAQ plan changed from the start of the pandemic to now?

A: Decisions made initially between March and May 2020 compared to decisions made in late 2020 are going to differ from fall 2021 plans. And they should! A lot has changed since those initial pandemic months and even from the start of the 2020 school year to the start of the 2021 school year. Hopefully, your school has offered regular updates on IAQ decisions, practices and upgrades. If they haven’t, that’s obviously the place to start. If they have, consider asking how their priorities have changed. An initial common response was frequent deep cleaning and sanitizing, something that has since been proven less helpful than air quality improvements to fight COVID-19. Understanding how administrators’ priorities have changed from the start of the pandemic to now is likely beneficial.

Q: Do new plans include maintenance or routine service?

A: Creating a healthy school building with improved IAQ is not simply an initial system upgrade. It is not a one-time and done fix-it sort of deal, as many mistakingly believe. Rather, good school IAQ requires ongoing air quality assessments, regular HVAC system maintenance and verification. Consider checking in and confirming that a solid HVAC maintenance or encompassing IAQ routine plan is in order.

Q: How is the school district planning on spending federal funding?

A: Available federal funding is not the same across the board. Allocations and plans look different for each state, country, city, district and so on. There have also been several federal acts and installments providing schools with available money, making it quite confusing to follow. The important takeaway: not all funding has to be spent immediately or in the same way. Some of the funding doesn’t have to be spent until 2024! Not only does this give the school time to choose the best, personalized solution for their school buildings, but it also gives you time to ask questions.

Q: How will building air quality decisions and IAQ upgrades be tracked?

A: IAQ upgrades have the potential to make a real and lasting difference in your or your child’s school. And in the short term, you want assurance that the IAQ interventions chosen are minimizing the risk of infection transmission and creating healthier indoor breathing spaces. Is IAQ monitoring an option they’re considering? Is there a plan to track the data and notice trends? Verify they have taken steps to ensure that solutions are working and that they can share that data with staff and parents.

If you have a question about school IAQ that we didn’t answer here, reach out to us on social media! We might be the homeowner’s advocate, but supporting your health and comfort indoors applies to every indoor space you frequent! As always, if you have any type of indoor air quality question, feel free to @ us!

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