Fixing the Indoor Air Quality in Our Schools
April 14, 2021
Scientists and health experts have been urging schools to improve indoor air quality for years. No one paid attention until the pandemic.
Indoor Air Quality in Schools
It was sudden. In March of 2020 kids disappeared from the classroom and schools remained eerily empty throughout the year, except in Boston. A professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health is determined to bring students back to school. His name is Professor James Allen.
Carrying a container of dry ice, he started working on his goal, also telling everyone how important air circulation is for the health of students and teachers. Before the pandemic, Professor Allen was already researching viruses could spread indoors. After his lab was temporarily closed due to pandemic restrictions, he continued to stress the importance of cycling indoor air.
Now, he and his team are using dry ice to conduct indoor air quality experiments.
Improving Air Quality in Schools
Wearing a mask and social distancing cut down on virus transmission from larger droplets, but you still have minuscule particles in the air. Studies have shown, along with Professor Allen’s dry ice experiments that ventilation and air filtration are key to improving air quality.
The ongoing pandemic is bringing the problem with air quality in schools to light. It’s a problem the professor and his colleagues have known for years. Almost all public and private schools are facing ventilation issues.
Indoor air quality standards for schools recommends 15 cubic feet per minute (CFM) per student in the classroom. The measurement should also include staff. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, Professor Allen recommend increasing it to 30 CFM. Unfortunately, most U.S. classrooms circulate air around 6 -11 CFM.
Air quality in schools is poor and it took a pandemic for people to pay attention.
Like the sentence above states, the pandemic has pushed the Nation into recognizing the need for better indoor air quality in our schools. But as our students return to our schools, experts are warning that the poor air quality could lead to coronavirus outbreaks. You can read more on the topic here.
Air Quality and Germs
British nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale understood the importance of sanitation and how it affects the spread of germs during the Crimean War. We also know germs can be spread through the air. It makes understanding why air quality is so poor in schools hard to understand.
The 1970s energy crisis is partially to blame for today’s schools’ issues with ventilation. To lower heating and cooling costs, buildings designed in the 1970s were installed with non-opening windows. Energy costs were lowered, but so was air quality.
Architect Witold Rybczynski scoffs at the 1070s building design in his 1986 book Home. He writes
“No nineteenth-century book on house planning was complete unless it included at least one chapter on the subject of ventilation and ‘the evils of bad air.”
Impact of Poor Air Quality
Being stuck in a classroom isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, but there are also health effects when the air is stagnant. Poor ventilation affects cognitive abilities like memory and concentration.
Scientists at Lawrence Berkley National Labs are studying indoor air quality in schools and have been for several decades. One study, before the pandemic, shows that improved ventilation improves student attendance, along with grades. The study focused on using improved filters to improve air quality.
Reggie Chan, a research scientist at LBL, found through student surveys a correlation between air quality and some health conditions. Respiratory issues among students and air quality in the classroom are connected.
The researcher goes on to tie student academic performance with air quality. Test and grade scores significantly improve in kids across all socio-economic factions with improved indoor air quality.
Practices Aren’t Keeping Up with the Science
Research scientist Chan co-authored a study finding 85% of California classrooms fail to meet indoor air quality standards for schools. They cannot meet the minimum requirements of 15 CFM per student and teacher.
The reasons for this vary from outdated ventilation systems to blocked window units. Schools with upgraded HVAC units have problems with control settings, maintenance, or improper installation.
The federal government is starting to take notice. A release from the Government Accountability Office noted that 40% of U.S. schools need to have their HVAC systems upgraded. The report was issued before the pandemic and very few changes have been made.
The cost of an HVAC upgrade for schools can be mind-boggling, but there are other solutions available. In, What to Look for in a Commercial Air Purification System for your School, we review the features your air purification system needs to have to be effective in your school.
How to Meet Indoor Air Quality Standards for Schools
Harvard Professor James Allen with the results from his dry ice experiments recommends replacing the air in classrooms 5x times per hour. His tests show that a room 1,010sqft with 9.5ft ceilings has an air circulation rate of around 2.5 hours. He doesn’t believe this is enough to keep students and staff safe.
Opening windows and doors can help, but only when the weather permits. It’s a temporary solution that does increase air turnover rates. Installing an air filter or purification unit is a long-term solution. While Professor Allen’s goal is to improve air quality in schools, he hopes that there will be a long-term solution for all schools.
If you school or university is considering log-term indoor air quality mitigation strategies, Action Services Group can help. As the National distributor and installer for the Halo air purification system, we can provide state of the art air filtration without costly HVAC upgrades.
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