Schools’ Summer Assignment: Act Now on Air Quality to Prepare for Fall
With new Covid-19 subvariants spreading, public health experts are calling for indoor air quality improvements to ensure that classrooms are safe today and going forward.
I have four school-age children, and during the Covid-19 waves that rippled through the school year, every week or so at least one of their classmates was testing positive, which meant my wife and I then had to decide to what degree each member of our household should isolate themselves. It felt never-ending. So I know firsthand the upheaval and deprivation the pandemic has caused for students, parents, teachers and the broader school community.
I also shared in the relief many experienced as Covid restrictions lifted in many communities. But Covid remains an evolving threat. As summer approaches, infections and hospitalizations are once again on the rise, underscoring the challenge faced by governments and public health officials as they try to make the coronavirus a manageable part of our daily reality.
A recent report from some of America’s leading public health experts identifies a key aspect of the transition out of the pandemic: improving indoor air quality. This emphasis is a critical addition to a discourse that has largely focused on vaccines, masks, testing and treatment – important measures, but insufficient for creating safer indoor spaces over the long term.
New ventilation guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency also provide a checklist of tasks for school administrators and building managers. The message is essential for public and private K-12 schools for whom Congress set aside $122 billion as part of the American Rescue Plan. According to a recent analysis by the U.S. Department of Education, 93% of the money hasn’t been spent. If districts don’t use it by September 2024, they’ll lose it. With summer approaching, now is the time to apply those funds to upgrade facilities, improve ventilation and ensure that proper air quality equipment is in place by fall.
I’m a scientist and engineer, and for more than a decade I’ve been working to improve the air we breathe indoors. I’ve seen the profound effects that air quality can have on our health and well-being, even apart from the pandemic. If we don’t take appropriate action today in our schools, we may well look back on this moment as a missed turning point for healthy air in education.
A crisis of absenteeism
With children spending around 1,300 hours a year inside school buildings, the quality of the air they breathe couldn’t be more important. Yet multiple studies over the past decade have shown that the vast majority of U.S. schools fall short of minimum ventilation standards.
Unsurprisingly, schools have long been a petri dish for illness among students. Prior to Covid-19, about 16% of American students missed at least 10% of the school year. During severe flu seasons, it’s not uncommon for absenteeism to top 25%. Personally, I’ve seen multiple instances of colds, flus, chicken pox and other transmissible illnesses circulating in my children’s classrooms, leading to sick days that force me and my wife to figure out how best to care for our children. The problem has only gotten worse with Covid-19, with student attendance falling across all regions and demographics.
Absenteeism has measurable negative long-term consequences for students’ academic achievement, social skills and graduation rates. Students chronically absent between 8th and 12th grades are over seven times more likely than their peers to drop out.
Schools also suffer when their students miss class, because funding is typically tied to enrollment and attendance. A 2013 California study found that if school districts were to exceed the state’s ventilation standard they could significantly decrease absence and bring in an additional $33 million in annual funding, at only a $4 million cost. On an even bigger scale, underfunded schools and undereducated students undermine collective productivity and economic growth in powerful but hard-to-measure ways.
Even when poor indoor air isn’t causing noticeable illnesses, it can have negative impacts on health and performance throughout the school community, affecting everyone from teachers to cafeteria workers. Air pollution, especially particulate matter pollution, has long been linked to heart disease, asthma and lung cancer. Now we also know that indoor air quality is also affecting our students’ brains: A 2021 Harvard report established a strong link between indoor air and brain function, demonstrating that people perform better on cognition tests under better ventilation conditions.
While I’m concerned that my children aren’t learning as well as they could be simply because of the quality of the air they breathe at school, I’m confident we can better protect them through science-based intervention.
Parents and schools can make a difference
In recent years, parents have shaped school safety by encouraging administrators to have sound emergency policies and procedures in place. Parents can play a crucial role in the air quality crisis as well.
They can start by asking schools to install indoor air quality sensors that measure the amount of particulate matter and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air. They can encourage schools to report results regularly on a public dashboard. School administrators have a responsibility both to be transparent about air quality and to take concrete steps to improve it, including banning items that emit particulate matter (such as candles and fragrance sticks) and adding portable air cleaners to protect the breathing zone in classrooms. Upgrades to HVAC facilities, including the addition of portable air filters, are crucial for long-term indoor air quality improvement. These upgrades are more easily made in the summer months when classes aren’t being held.
My colleagues and I have spent the past decade in labs innovating safe, effective and sustainable solutions that significantly improve the quality of indoor air. Air cleaning technology is now in position to play an important role in making our schools safer. With better air, our children will breathe easier, and so will we, knowing that their education doesn’t come at the expense of their health and well-being.
Felipe Soberon, Ph.D., is Chief Science Officer at WellAir.