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  • Writer's pictureJosh Veblen

Creating a Healthy & Productive Learning Environment

Updated: Jan 7

When you consider that the average school building in the U.S. is 50 years old, the need for critical infrastructure upgrades becomes blatantly apparent.

School districts have been battling antiquated infrastructure, leaky pipes, mold, humidity, and temperature fluctuations long before COVID drew attention to the critical importance of indoor air quality.

In their 2020 Infrastructure Report, the American Society of Civil Engineers confirmed that fully 53% of the nation’s schools need to upgrade or replace various building systems—specifically heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) in order to provide a healthy environment for students and staff.

(Chart courtesy of the National Education Association)

Why is indoor air quality so important?

Studies have shown a direct link between indoor air quality in schools and student performance (including addition skills, number comparison, reading, comprehension, and attendance).

Students, teachers, and staff are exposed to several airborne pollutants every day while they're in class. Indoor pollutants include things like airborne infectious diseases like COVID, as well as volatile organic compounds that are emitted from things like building materials, cleaning products, dust mites, and molds. According to EPA research, indoor pollutants may be two to five times higher than outdoor levels. Industry and vehicle emissions are the most common sources of outdoor air pollution.

Exposure to these pollutants is known to contribute to health problems such as asthma, stroke, and heart and lung diseases. (Nearly 1 in 13 school-age children in the U.S. has asthma, which is the leading cause of school absenteeism due to chronic illness.) In addition to the health risks, studies have also shown that poor indoor air quality can directly impede cognitive development.

Not surprisingly, the EPA has also shown dangerous particulate air pollution disproportionately impacts facilities in low-income communities

The challenge schools face

School districts clearly understand the need to improve indoor air quality. Unfortunately, more than two years into the pandemic, many districts are still struggling to find the best solution for improving indoor air quality.

In addition to the technical and engineering challenges associated with designing and implementing heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system upgrades, districts must sort through the complexities of building design, committee approvals, and, of course, budget constraints.

A recent CDC report revealed that fewer than 40% of U.S. public schools had replaced or upgraded their HVAC systems since the start of the pandemic. Even fewer were using high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filters in classrooms (28%), or fans to increase the effectiveness of having windows open (37%).

What can be done?

Optimizing indoor air quality is not one-size-fits-all—school districts need professional help to develop tailored solutions that utilize the latest technology and address each school’s unique needs and goals.

The EPA suggests that the most sustainable approach to improving indoor air quality in schools is to take a three-stage approach.

1. Assess indoor air quality

Hire a certified contractor to test and evaluate current air quality. Establish a baseline to determine where improvements are needed. (Alco Building Solutions will analyze current systems and identify recommended changes/upgrades at no cost.)

2. Improve ventilation to increase circulation of fresh air

  • Ensure HVAC systems maximize ventilation by bringing in as much outdoor air as weather and outdoor air quality permit. This will reduce pollutants in the air and limit the spread of viruses and bacteria.

  • Program building control systems and thermostats to operate ventilation fans one hour before school starts and continuously during the school day.

  • Establish a scheduled inspection and maintenance program for HVAC systems.

3. Improve filtration of circulating air

  • Increase filter efficiency in existing HVAC systems by using filters with the highest Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) rating possible (MERV 13 or higher)

  • Ensure all filters are sized, installed, and replaced according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

  • Change filters every 3 to 4 months during the school year.

  • Install sensors in classrooms to monitor CO2 levels and detect any ventilation problems.

Other options for providing a healthier learning environment include:

Remove harmful building materials.

Several harmful building materials may be lurking in older school facilities.

  • The EPA is concerned that there may be PCB-containing building materials in schools and other buildings constructed or renovated between about 1950 and 1979.

  • Many schools still contain asbestos, because it once was used so widely in insulation, ceiling tiles, and other building materials.

  • Occasionally, schools are found to have contaminants such as lead in the drinking water. Lead pipes in older buildings can be one of the culprits.

  • Heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium nickel, manganese, lead chromium, and hexavalent chromium are sometimes present in the loose brick debris or “clinker” placed between joints in older buildings.

Disturbing any of these materials can be very dangerous. As such, it's important to work with a qualified contractor who understands the health, safety, and environmental regulations that apply to the disturbance and disposal of those materials.

1. Grow plants that remove toxins

  • NASA conducted a Clean Air Study in 1989 to research ways to clean air in sealed environments. It concluded that in addition to absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen through photosynthesis, certain common indoor plants may also provide a natural way to reduce volatile organic pollutants such as benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene. Dracaena, Peace Lilies, and Weeping Ficus are just a few of the many household plants that proved effective.

2. Consider replacing chalkboards with whiteboards

A recent study published in the journal Indoor and Built Environment concluded that while the risk from airborne chalk was low—and does not contain toxic materials—chalk dust could be harmful to allergic persons.

Funding Opportunities

Congress approved billions of dollars in funding opportunities for public and private schools in response to the pandemic. The funds can be used for a broad range of initiatives that will provide healthier indoor environments for students, teachers, and staff.

The major new sources of funding include:

  • Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Allocates around $13.2 billion to K-12 education. Funds must be designated for a specific purpose by September 30, 2022.

  • Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act, Includes an additional $54 billion for K-12 education. Funds must be designated for a specific purpose by September 30, 2023.

  • American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act. Provides another $123 billion for K-12 education. Funds must be designated for a specific purpose by September 30, 2024.

  • And, of course, CalSHAPE in California. Priority applications for districts qualifying as Disadvantaged opened on June 21, 2022. Applications for other sites open on August 2, 2022. The application deadline for both programs is October 31, 2022.

In Conclusion

Protecting children, teachers, and staff in the environment where they spend their days is an important investment for the future. The recent pandemic generated a renewed focus on the critical importance of indoor air quality. The funding made available by both federal and state governments means that the goal of creating safe, healthy, and productive learning environments is finally attainable for schools across the U.S.

“Good IAQ contributes to a favorable environment for students, the performance of teachers and staff, and a sense of comfort, health, and well-being. These elements combine to assist a school in its core mission — educating children.”

Source: United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

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