Back to school: breathing easy for back-to-school season
August 27, 2020
How to Ensure Healthy Indoor Air Quality for Returning Students
Whether you’re a resident of the United States, Europe, or anywhere else in the world, the current COVID-19 pandemic and corresponding spikes in cases throughout regional pockets worldwide has caused parents everywhere to pause for concern about a major turning point on the horizon: the scheduled in-person return of students to school. Back-to-school protocols will undoubtedly be quite fluid and regionally-dependent, with some school districts forging ahead with plans for a traditional opening and some already bracing for a much different looking school year with staggered schedules and digital learning. No matter how the current situation is, students will be returning to classrooms at some point in the future, and parents will be met with the pressures of trusting that their students are entering the most safe and meticulously managed environments possible.
Sanitization and taking action to curb the spread of the coronavirus by limiting physical interaction and enforcing social distancing will be top-of-mind for parents and administrators. Following the advice of the World Health Organisation and local authorities is the only way forward.
However, there are other supplemental considerations and actions that schools can implement to not only address the immediate threat but also embark on the road towards achieving a healthy building in the long-term. One major first step is indoor air quality monitoring and management.
By nature, schools create a combination of circumstances that cause them to be a considerable threat for exposure to airborne pollutants. EPA studies have found that half of the schools1 in the United States have below-average indoor air quality that should be addressed. The good news? Achieving a healthy learning environment for your child is not an unrealistic expectation, and impactful change can be made quickly and without a major financial undertaking. Here are a few solid first steps:
Understanding what is in the air is the only way to know if your school has a problem. This is critical in determining how to customize the specific needs of each school building, as every space is unique. Many schools are in older buildings that have not been optimized for occupant health, meaning they are vulnerable to not only COVID-19 but common pollutants like mold, dust, and airborne allergens because they lack proper ventilation. Constant intelligent monitoring and familiarization with what’s in your air through technology solutions like Airthings for Business can help schools ensure that any areas lacking have been addressed and optimized.
Once an issue is identified, schools can then implement solutions that are curated towards a specific problem. But what about budgets? Budgetary allocation for school districts can be a hot button issue for local residents, especially during a recession - but what needs to be recognized is that investing in monitoring will actually create perpetual energy savings in the future.
Perhaps no indoor air quality component is more important to monitor closely during a school reopening than humidity. Studies have established a link between the facilitation of seasonal respiratory virus transmission, particularly flu, and the level of humidity in the air. Research for the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention found that when humidity levels were set to a low 23%, a huge 70.6-77.3% of the flu virus particles were able to cause an infection—even an hour after coughing2. When humidity levels are too low, it means indoor air is dry, which can allow airborne drops of water and other bacteria to stay airborne longer and travel farther.
While the CDC recommends buildings maintain humidity levels in between 30-50%, other scientific bodies disagree and believe that 40-60% is the optimal target zone. At Airthings we recommend between 30-60%. No matter the case, the evidence is clear that humidity levels are paramount when establishing a safe learning environment for children.
In addition to focusing on humidity, ensuring the presence of proper ventilation will be a core element of any school’s reopening. When it comes to virus transmission, stale air is the enemy, and poor ventilation can also cause CO2, VOCs and radon to accumulate.There’s a proven impact on student performance and indoor air quality. Studies have shown that classrooms with poor ventilation directly correlate with lackluster student grades3. CO2 in particular can have a negative impact on student learning as research has linked high levels of the gas with cognitive issues, such as difficulty concentrating. Remember that children breathe more air in relation to their body weight than adults, so the quality of their air they’re inhaling has an even more potent effect on their health4.
The best way to manage a ventilation strategy is by monitoring and extracting data-based evidence, and deploying a tailored solution to address your issues. Ways to potentially mitigate this would be to ensure any existing HVAC system is tested and cleaned regularly, invest in a technology solution that offers smart monitoring of occupancy and overall air quality, or ensure that teachers have access to classroom windows that open and allow for cross-ventilation.
Your student’s school years are a pivotally important stepping stone towards their future success and development. Going back to school during a pandemic, in whichever capacity can be concerning. Following advice by the World Health Organisation and local governments is a must. At the very least, each and every guardian and student should rest assured knowing that their school is doing everything they can to make their environmental conditions safe and enriching. As outlined above, supplemental considerations and actions that schools can implement is indoor air quality monitoring and management.
1. "Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Program" 2002, https://nepis.epa.gov/