Our research focuses on indoor environments and health – an area that has received increased attention during the pandemic, since most transmissions of COVID-19 are through shared air inside. There are lots of evidence that smart investments in school buildings can reduce the transmission of infectious diseases, while improving learning and increasing the well-being of students, teachers and administrators.
Many school districts have limited resources and buildings in poor condition. Where to start ? Here are some priorities we see for immediate action and longer-term investments that can truly transform the school experience.
Filters and fresh air
Since the spring of 2020, schools have invested millions of dollars in interventions to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, including commercial filtration units and ventilation improvements. These actions are a drop in the bucket, given structural improvements needed in many schools, especially in less affluent school districts, but they are an important start. And their benefits extend beyond COVID-19, so they shouldn’t be thrown away.
For example, high efficiency filters – including commercial units, DIY boxes Where filters with MERV-13 ratings for HVAC systems – captures flu and cold viruses as well as SARS-CoV-2 virus particles. They also clean the air of pollen particles, mold spores and pollution from car exhaust and industrial operations. And in areas where forest fires are frequent, filters reduce the concentration of smoke particles inside buildings.
Schools with mechanical ventilation have been able to increase the amount of filtered fresh air that these systems draw indoors. This dilutes all indoor pollutants. For children and school staff, especially those with asthma, allergies and sensitivities, this can mean fewer missed school days, fewer medications and fewer asthma attacks and subsequent trips to the hospital.
Better ventilation can actually increase learning and attention. A 2010 study showed that children did better on standardized tests when ventilation rates were higher. Poor ventilation can also affect teachers: a 2016 study found that the cognitive performance of office workers improved when they were exposed to lower levels of carbon dioxide, which is a marker of better ventilation. And a 2018 analysis showed that student performance on school tests decreased on hot days, especially in schools without air conditioning. If you’ve ever felt like it was hard to concentrate in a hot, stuffy room, science has your back.
For now, we recommend that schools that have implemented improvements maintain increased ventilation rates with maximum fresh air, continue to use high-efficiency filters in their HVAC systems, and keep filters self-contained. operating in classrooms. Schools that have not invested in these steps should do so, with states providing funding to low-resource districts as needed. The costs of these steps are modest compared to the benefits they provide for health and learning.
Families and staff who want to improve conditions in their schools should strive to provide every classroom with improved ventilation and filtration, including build DIY boxes, if needed.
Funding for healthier buildings
These short-term fixes can help, but the best way to ensure schools provide healthy learning conditions is to invest in healthier buildings.
Funds for this purpose are available now. All American states have received millions of dollars from the US rescue planenacted in 2021 to address the impact of COVID-19, including Emergency aid for elementary and secondary schools, or ESSER, funds. The Department of Education has disbursed $122 billion to help schools prevent the spread of COVID-19 and operate safely.
School districts used this money to settle a variety of needs, including staffing, school support and mental health, but much of it is still available. And only a few states have invested in HVAC. According to a study by the independent Brookings Institution, Less than 5% money from the last round of ESSER funds had been spent until the first quarter of 2022.
Another one $3 billion was authorized in the recently enacted law Inflation Reduction Act for Environment and Climate Justice Block Grants. These can be used to improve buildings and ventilation systems to reduce indoor air pollution.
School districts may be tempted to put indoor air interventions on the back burner, given widespread perceptions that the pandemic is over and the many other challenges they face. But in our view, other educational interventions will be less effective if children are frequently absent due to illness or unable to concentrate in class.
We believe it is important for families and staff to understand the benefits that healthy indoor learning environments provide to all who spend time in school buildings, and to hold states and school districts accountable to invest now in HVAC upgrades to healthier school buildings.
Patricia Fabien is an associate professor of environmental health at Boston University. Jonathan Levy is a professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Health at Boston University. This piece originally appeared in The Conversation, a nonprofit news source dedicated to unlocking insights from academia for the public.