Better air in classrooms matters beyond COVID. Here’s why the schools aren’t there yet
Open windows and portable air purifiers can help improve ventilation, but many schools in the United States are over 45 and need a complete overhaul of their HVAC systems. Image: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images
Few people can say that the pandemic has made their job easier. But in some ways, Tracy Enger can.
“You know, it’s such a hallelujah moment, absolutely,” says Enger, who works in the Indoor Environments Division of the Environmental Protection Agency. For more than 25 years, she has fought to improve indoor air quality in American schools.
But there are many competing demands for limited school budgets. And in the past, getting school districts to prioritize indoor air quality hasn’t been easy. Often, she says, it took some kind of crisis to get schools to focus on the problem — “when they found out about the mold problem, when their asthma rates were skyrocketing.”
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic – spread by virus particles that can accumulate in indoor air and linger, sometimes for hours. Key to eliminating these infectious particles: good ventilation and filtration. For example, a study of Georgia schools linked improved ventilation strategies, combined with HEPA filtration, to a 48% lower COVID rate.
“It matters more to people right now,” Heming says. “COVID is this immediate threat that has made air quality immediately relevant.”
That’s why she and other indoor air quality experts say the new Biden government National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan is a step in the right direction: it highlights in particular the need to help schools modernize their ventilation systems in the long term, using funding from the US Bailout Act.
Heming says that in the past it has been difficult to make the case for improving air quality in schools because the health effects tend to be longer term. But one the whole research shows that the health and study benefits are substantial – and go beyond COVID. When a room is better ventilated, flu rates, asthma attacks and absenteeism decrease, reading and math test scores increase. Less carbon dioxide builds up in a room, which helps students think more clearly.
“It’s well documented in all countries and at all ages,” says Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard University. “We see benefits in kindergarten, we see benefits in high school, we see benefits in college students and middle schoolers – all age groups.”
Allen says it’s critical to understand these long-term benefits of improved ventilation, “because an investment right now isn’t just a short-term investment for COVID. If a school does this right , she can expect not just years, but decades of health benefits beyond reductions in infectious disease transmission.
And experts say those investments are desperately needed because most American schools are poorly ventilated to begin with. The average American school is over 45 years old and many have HVAC systems that are outdated or in need of repair, according to a Government Accountability Office 2020 Report. Some schools are so old that they don’t even have a mechanical ventilation system.
“I don’t think a lot of people recognize that design standards [that govern ventilation rates in schools and other buildings] are strict minimums. They were never really set for health,” says Allen.
Carl Thurnau knows only too well how bad delayed school maintenance can be. Several years ago, a classroom ceiling collapsed at a school in the City School District of New Rochelle, New York. That’s when the district recruited Thurnau, an engineer, to become its facilities manager to oversee a $106 million building overhaul — a process that was already funded and underway when COVID hit. That money meant the school district could quickly pivot to implement ventilation improvements in response to COVID.
The funding in place “is the reason we were able to get ahead – and in my opinion, stay ahead,” Thurnau said. But “there is no doubt that districts with fewer financial resources are struggling to find the money to address some of these issues.”
Since the early days of the pandemic, even before the The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have acknowledged that the virus can spread through the air. Broadly speaking, Allen says, the advice comes down to three main things: increasing the amount of outside air in a classroom; use more efficient MERV filters in HVAC systems; and supplementing these measures with portable air cleaners with HEPA filters.
But two years later, it’s unclear how many schools have actually made these changes. This information is not tracked at the federal level, although some reports allude to the challenges schools have faced. What’s clear, Allen says, is that while many schools have taken steps to improve ventilation, many others have not. “Some haven’t taken the basic steps, the stopgap steps,” Allen says.
Heming says schools have been able to dip into federal funds to improve ventilation since end of December 2020and the American Rescue Plan Act, passed in March 2021, made significantly more money — $122 billion — available to schools for this and other pandemic-related purposes.
So why have many schools been slow to take action on indoor air quality? Last year, the Center for Green Schools released a investigation more than 47 school districts representing 2.5 million students in 24 states. The vast majority said they prefer to invest in long-term solutions rooted in revamping or replacing their HVAC systems.
But with so many old and outdated school buildings, Heming says, “these strategies schools need to employ require them to do some pretty major renovations.”
This kind of work takes several months to plan and contract. In many cases, she says, those plans are only coming to fruition now. And a recent survey revealed many school districts are concerned that they will not be able to complete work by the September 2024 deadline under the law, including due to supply chain issues and labor and material shortages.
Stopgap measures like opening windows or using portable air purifiers really do work to improve indoor air quality, Heming says, but they can only get schools so far. For example, open windows aren’t realistic when outside temperatures are freezing, she says, and in humid regions they can attract more moisture, promoting mold growth.
And while many school districts have invested in self-contained portable air purifiers, they come with their own headaches, says Heming: The units can be very noisy and they require storage and maintenance over time.
In general, she says, the school districts that were able to act most quickly to improve their ventilation and air filtration in response to the pandemic were those that already had money available to upgrade their facilities, and in in many cases, they had already assessed their buildings and knew which ones needed work.
But there are encouraging signs that more schools may soon catch up. A analysis published in February found that school districts already have plans in place to spend about $4.4 billion on HVAC updates, and if trends continue, that could reach nearly $10 billion. Another one To analyse found that very poor districts are more likely to plan to use federal funds to retrofit aging ventilation systems.
EPA’s Tracy Enger says interest in the agency’s guidance on indoor air quality at school has skyrocketed over the past year. “What we’re seeing is this moment turning into a movement to improve indoor air quality in schools and create healthier learning spaces,” she says.
Heming says she’s also optimistic, but her enthusiasm is muted. She notes that the $122 billion in US bailout funds earmarked for schools must pay for a host of pandemic-related needs — from hiring more staff to summer school programs — not just upgrades. at the ventilation level.
Even though every last penny of US bailout funds for schools has been spent on facilities, “there is still a big gap between that and what is actually needed,” Heming says. A The 2021 report revealed that each year, districts spend $85 billion less than necessary to restore schools to good repair.
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