The COVID-19 pandemic created a new sense of urgency and focus on air quality and safety indoors. As many parents get ready to send their children back to school classrooms this fall, confidence surrounding indoor air quality is still a major concern across the country.
Evidence suggests that inadequate ventilation and poor indoor air quality management can increase the risk of contaminants circulating in the air. Reducing occupant exposure to contaminants can help mitigate absenteeism and boost productivity for students, staff and parents alike. Even before the pandemic, a 2009 study in The Journal of School Nursing reported that cold and flu viruses caused an average of 164 million K-12 student absences. And, parents missing work to care for sick children contributed to total productivity losses costing employers $225.8 billion annually in the United States, according to the CDC.
A school’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system can implement solutions that may help mitigate such threats. Yet 41% of school districts needed to renew or upgrade the HVAC systems in at least half of their schools in 2020. This means an estimated 36,000 schools nationwide are facing inadequate indoor air quality.
These risks do not need to go unmitigated. President Biden’s American Rescue Plan has earmarked $130 billion for school upgrades. This funding provides an opportunity for necessary upgrades to the many schools in need.
Three questions to ask your school district
Recent innovations in HVAC make it easier to assess, mitigate and manage indoor air quality, while keeping school district budgets and nationwide sustainability goals in mind.
Parents can get involved to help ensure federal funding addresses the challenges facing their local schools. As local districts begin designating dollars, here are three questions to ask:
• Does my child’s school have an updated indoor air quality plan, including maintenance and service?
• Will our district spend stimulus dollars to invest in HVAC improvements to enhance indoor air quality?
• Does my school district have a plan to measure the effectiveness of these investments?
• There are four key factors to healthier indoor air quality that help create a more optimal indoor environment:
• Dilute (increased ventilations with outdoor air),
• Exhaust (ensuring lower quality air in the space is removed),
• Contain (control humidity), and
• Clean (use air cleaning technology and filtration options, as appropriate).
“As a parent with a daughter in elementary school, our family is very anxious to get our daughter back to the high-quality, in-person learning environment she experienced as a kindergartener,” said Scott Huffmaster, Healthy Buildings Leader, Trane Technologies.
The best place to start is with a data-driven assessment of current indoor air quality. A large Texas school district recently worked with Trane to assess indoor air quality at a sample of its schools. The fact-based assessment provided insight to actionable strategies tailored to the district’s needs and aligned with the latest industry guidelines.
Every facility needs a custom evaluation and approach. For example, increased use of disinfecting sprays and wipes to clean surfaces can emit unhealthy compounds that affect air quality. Simple approaches, like opening windows or fans to increase air flow, don’t always work for areas with high humidity or pollution levels, and may increase energy use.
New and emerging technologies can help, too. After factoring in the conditions of building HVAC systems, ambient outside air and other considerations, leaders at Adams 14 School District outside of Denver installed Synexis® Spheres throughout its campuses - an innovative technology that takes naturally occurring oxygen and humidity in the air to create a vaporized dry hydrogen peroxide that continually and significantly reduces the presence of contaminants in the air and on surfaces. This occupant-approved, effective and low-maintenance option has helped to improve district-wide indoor air quality without negatively affecting energy efficiency and operating costs.
The science, funding and innovation are within reach to address each school district’s needs. Consider asking if your school district is addressing these concerns to provide better indoor environments for students to learn.