Our research focuses on indoor environments and health – an area that has received increased attention during the pandemic, as most COVID-19 transmissions occur through indoor shared air. There is ample 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 self-contained, high-efficiency commercial filtration units and ventilation improvements. These actions are a drop in the ocean, given the 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, or filters with MERV-13 ratings for HVAC systems — capture flu and cold viruses as well as SARS virus particles. -CoV-2. They also clean the air of pollen particles, mold spores and pollution from car exhaust and industrial operations. And in areas where wildfires are common, 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 school. 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 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 declined in hot weather, 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 measures 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 the construction of DIY boxes, if necessary.
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 US states have received millions of dollars from the US bailout, enacted in 2021 to deal with the impact of COVID-19, including emergency relief funds for elementary and secondary schools, or ESSER. The Department of Education has disbursed $122 billion to help schools prevent the spread of COVID-19 and operate safely.
School districts have used this money to meet a variety of needs, including staffing, academic support and mental health, but much of it is still available. And only a few states have invested in HVAC. According to a review by the independent Brookings Institution, less than 5% of the money from the latest round of ESSER funds was spent in the first quarter of 2022.
An additional $3 billion was authorized in the recently enacted Cut Inflation Act for environmental 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 the widespread perception 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 for 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.