February 28, 2021
It’s been a tough year for parents and school kids. Both have endured a historic disruption of the education system, and rapidly shifted to virtual schooling. Many parents set up a place to work from home, whether at the kitchen table, on the couch, or creating an office in an extra room, while also creating space for their children to learn remotely. The kids have not had it easy either and are well aware that they are missing many traditional rites of passage during lockdown, such as proms, sports, and extracurricular activities.
Gradually, through the course of 2021, the US is having children return to schools in person. States that never fully shutdown, like Florida, will likely achieve this faster than others. And other states, including Arkansas, Iowa, and Texas, are looking to reopen their schools earlier than later as well. In Los Angeles, which has been under strict lockdown for months, government officials outlined risk-mitigating health practices and components for them to safely continue in-person education over the next few months.
As schools re-open, everyone should have the indoor air quality in schools at the front of their mind. Why? Because IAQ is closely linked to the overall health of school children, not only the transmissibility of COVID-19.
Why does indoor air quality in schools matter? Because when kids are at school, they are breathing their school buildings’ air for many hours of each day. And the quality of the air they take into their lungs has a direct impact on their health. This makes every air quality problem a potential health risk.
Research reveals that unhealthy school air quality is linked to poor cognitive development and performance among students. Poor school air quality also exacerbates behavioral and learning disorders, and increases absenteeism. Furthermore, poor indoor air quality in schools contributes to the following symptoms:
The spread of COVID-19 makes the picture even more worrying. Studies reveal that long-term exposure to fine dust has been linked to increased COVID-19 mortality rates. And schools, especially ones that are ill-equipped in terms of ventilation and air conditioning, can have high concentrations of dust particles or CO2 in the air.
Prior to the pandemic, US schools, particularly public schools, already had an outdoor air quality problem. Air quality is considered “poor” or “bad” when the Air Quality Index (AQI) values reach 151 and above. This happens when the amount of pollutants and contaminants in the outdoor air – be it PM2.5, mold spores, VOCs, viruses, or anything else – exceed acceptable levels. However, outdoor air is not the only place these air factors may be found.
The average school building in the U.S. is 44 years old. That’s about 44 years of accumulated indoors pollution, aggravated by aging infrastructure and inconsistent maintenance of facilities. Cracked and peeling paints off-gassing VOCs; mold growing in dark, hard-to-reach places; old heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems that churn out fine dust particles – all of these add up to poor indoor air quality. In the worst cases, high occupancy in poorly ventilated spaces can provide an optimal environment for the spread of illness, including COVID-19.
It should be noted that poor air quality can also be found even in brand new buildings. A 2020 study from the U.S. Government Accountability Office showed that 40% of K-12 buildings need to update or replace ventilation in schools. The EPA estimated that 46% of public schools had conditions that contribute to poor school air quality. Insufficient heating, ventilation, and cooling are all contributing factors and common issues in new or old HVAC systems in public school districts nationwide.
Airflow matters when it comes to keeping schools safe for children, teachers, and staff. In fact, ventilation is so crucial that parents should be urging school administrators to make sure that the ventilation systems are clean, sufficient, and working well.
As laid out in CDC guidelines on operating schools during COVID-19, proper ventilation ensures the continuous flow of clean air and the dilution of possible contaminants in the air. The CDC recommends that school administrators consult experts in HVAC systems to determine the school environment’s safety. At this point, schools should have an HVAC maintenance plan in place to protect both school children and school staff.
Here are some other key recommendations:
COVID-19 is the short-term risk, but air quality in schools has a perpetual connection to the health and learning abilities of children. Fortunately, improving IAQ for health and safety isn’t necessarily expensive. It can be as simple as updating filters or opening windows in certain cases. However, to implement solutions, you need to know the IAQ issues that need to be addressed. And you can’t know how, when, and where you need to ventilate classrooms or apply solutions unless you are monitoring your indoor air in real-time.
Parents and other community voices should put pressure on schools and districts to install always-on air quality monitoring equipment to understand what is in their air, as well as integrations to be able to manage it. By gathering and sharing IAQ data, schools can choose what they need to do in terms of ventilation, HVAC cleaning, and portable air cleaners to address any issues and keep returning teachers and students safe. Parents can have better peace of mind.
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Crowded classrooms, meetings in closed door conference rooms, working from your makeshift WFH office with poor ventilation - all of these scenarios can cause high CO2 and significant decreases in cognition and productivity.What is carbon dioxide?Carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring gas that is measured in parts per million (ppm). A by-product of our metabolic process – we add CO2 into the air every time we exhale – it’s often used as an indicator of adequate building ventilation.