As our children head back to school, the air inside of the school may impact their health, performance and attendance. In fact, improving the indoor air quality in schools has been shown to:

  1. Boost Student Performance: studies show a strong connection between improved indoor air and enhanced student performance. Better air quality can improve critical skills such as concentration, addition skills, number comparison, reading and comprehension.
  2. Reduce Absenteeism: poor indoor air quality can lead to higher rates of respiratory infections, allergic responses and adverse reactions to chemicals (also called volatile organic compounds or VOCs) used in schools. Asthma is one of the leading causes of school absenteeism causing an estimated 13.8 million lost school days in children ages 5-17. Children with asthma are especially vulnerable to environmental asthma triggers found indoors in many school buildings.
  3. Enhance Teacher and Staff Well-being: a healthier indoor environment benefits educators by decreasing discomfort and sickness while increasing performance.

Schools should ideally serve as optimal learning environments for students, but poor air quality in a school building can have negative effects. It is estimated that pollutants are up to five times higher indoors than outdoors. Considering that children (and adults) spend up to 90% of their time indoors, with one in five people in the U.S. spending their days inside school buildings, prioritizing clean air in schools is critical for a healthy learning environment. 

The air we breathe is filled with lots of things including gases and particles—most are too small to see with the naked eye and some may cause harm to your body when inhaled. This concept of indoor air quality highlights the importance of ensuring indoor air is free of harmful gases, chemicals and particles. Watch this video to learn how indoor air quality impacts your health.

There are several variables that can cause poor indoor air quality in schools:

  • Indoor/outdoor air pollutants (including mold, chemicals, fumes, smoke, etc.)
  • Poor air filtration
  • Poor air flow
  • Improper room pressurization/ventilation
  • Temperature (either too hot or too cold)
  • High or low humidity

Common gas pollutants, including toxic carbon monoxide, can build up indoors from improperly vented furnaces or idling buses and vehicles near the classroom. High humidity in the classroom can lead to moisture problems and mold. Even common classroom supplies and equipment including chalk, scented markers, printers and cleaning supplies can lead to poor indoor air quality. The presence of these pollutants, coupled with poor ventilation, air flow and ventilation can contribute to the deterioration of indoor air quality in the classroom. 

Schools face unique challenges in providing clean indoor air. School buildings are crowded places. Schools may have four times as many occupants per square foot as office buildings. The multiple uses of school space, including classrooms, cafeterias, gyms, art rooms and labs mean many potential sources of indoor air problems. School budgets are often tight, which may affect regular maintenance and cleaning practices.

However, failure to address indoor air quality issues and take steps to prevent issues can cause big problems for schools, such as: 

  • Reduced efficiency of school buildings and equipment 
  • Costly repairs and subsequent school/room closures to address issues
  • Negative publicity and damage to relationships among parents, teachers and school administration
  • Increased liability and risk

Taking steps to proactively address air quality issues in schools before they become a problem can make a big difference. Making even minor changes – like opening doors and windows to the classroom - can have a large impact on health and learning.

Promoting healthy air quality in schools is vital for children’s developing lungs and brains.These steps can make sure that air in your child's school is safe and healthy for children and adults alike.

1. Know if there is a problem.

Learn the signs and symptoms that can indicate unhealthy air. Learn how to identify problems and find out what to do if an indoor air emergency occurs. Wireless, battery-operated indoor air quality devices can monitor a wide array of air quality issues (e.g., temperature, humidity, CO2, radon).

2. Identify and eliminate the source

Once the source of air pollution is identified, take steps to eliminate or reduce it. This could mean removing items from the classroom like scented markers, air fresheners and cleaning supplies. If removal is not an option, reduce or manage the source to improve air quality.

3. Improve ventilation

Open a door or window to draw in fresh, outdoor air to reduce indoor air pollutants. Use fans to exhaust room air to the outdoors and to get a crosswind. If the classroom is near a road or pick-up/drop-off areas, avoid opening windows and doors during high-traffic times of the day.

4. Clean the air

Filter the air with a portable HEPA air cleaner. Health studies show modest health improvements in individuals who consistently use mechanical, portable air cleaners. These devices take in the room's air and capture particles, viruses and many chemicals then release clean air back into the room. Run the air cleaner with all doors and windows closed for maximum efficiency. Learn more about what to look for in an air cleaner here. Avoid models with ionizer, foggers, electrostatic sprayers, spraying disinfectants and air fresheners.

5. Adopt policies and programs that maintain good indoor air quality

The most important player in protecting students and staff at school is the school itself. School administrators and facilities managers across the country have taken steps to make sure their schools have clean air indoors. Tobacco- and vape-free school policies and school bus anti-idling policies help to protect good air quality at schools.

By taking proactive measures to improve indoor air quality in schools, we can create an environment that fosters health, learning and overall well-being for students, educators and staff alike. Healthier air means a brighter future for everyone involved.

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