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.
The Link Between Indoor Air and Health at School
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:
- Asthma attacks
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.
The Air Quality Problem of Aging School Buildings
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.
The Importance of Ventilation in Schools
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:
- Air quality monitoring equipment is key to help you keep track of healthy and ideal ranges in order to mitigate COVID-19 transmission.
- Keep your temperature and humidity under control in classrooms. The infection rate of viruses is significantly reduced at room temperature (20°C or 68°F) compared to colder temperatures (e.g. 4°C or 39°F). As for CO2, ideally, keep levels at or below 800 ppm during the pandemic.
- With indoor environments lower than 40% Relative Humidity (RH), droplets from a cough or a sneeze lose their moisture quickly. This results in droplets becoming ‘dry aerosols’ and could stay in the air for longer periods. Viral particles remain infectious much longer below 40% and above 80%. 50% is the most ideal in terms of fast virus inactivation.
- COVID-19 aside, high humidity can allow for mold growth and dust mites, which can trigger allergies and/or asthma in kids. On the other hand, low humidity (less than 30%) can cause dry nasal passages, which could make kids more susceptible to cold viruses and can be harmful to people with weakened immune systems.
- Also, watch out for PM2.5. A study from China found that PM2.5 content in Chinese schools showed that children in schools with higher levels of particulates in the air resulted in more cases of asthma and hospital admission.
Schools Need Real-Time Air Quality Monitoring
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.