It took a pandemic to start fixing the air quality inside schools

It took a pandemic to start fixing the air quality inside schools thumbnail

This article was originally featured on KHN.

Many U.S. schools were in dire need of upgrades–burdened by leaking pipes, mold, and antiquated heating systems–long before the covid-19 pandemic drew attention to the importance of indoor ventilation in reducing the spread of infectious disease.

The average U.S. school building is 50 years old, and many schools date back more than a century.

So, one might assume school districts across the nation would welcome the opportunity created by billions of dollars in federal covid-relief money available to upgrade heating and air-conditioning systems and improve air quality and filtration in K-12 schools.

But a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released this month found that most U.S. public school have not made significant investments in improving indoor ventilation and filtering since the outbreak of the pandemic. The most common strategies for improving airflow and reducing covid risk were low-budget. These included moving classroom activities outside and opening windows and doors if it was safe.

The CDC report, based on a representative sample of the nation’s public schools, found that fewer than 40% had replaced or upgraded their HVAC systems since the start of the pandemic. Even fewer were using high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filters in classrooms (28%), or fans to increase the effectiveness of having windows open (37%).

Both the CDC as well as the White House have highlighted indoor ventilation as a powerful weapon in the fight to control covid. Congress has approved billions of dollars for public and private schools to provide a wide range of covid-related services. This includes providing mental health services, face masks and air filters, new HVAC systems, tutoring for children who are behind, and providing other covid-related solutions such as tutoring for those who are struggling.

Among the sizable funding pots for upgrades: $13 billion for schools in the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act; an additional $54 billion approved in December 2020 for schools’ use; and $122 billion for schools from the 2021 American Rescue Plan.

“Improved ventilation helps reduce the spread of covid-19, as well as other infectious diseases such as influenza,” said Catherine Rasberry, branch chief of adolescent and school health at the CDC’s National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention. “Investments made now could lead to lasting improvements .”

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There are many data that show that schools can have better ventilation than covid. Improved indoor air quality can lead to improvements in math and reading, better focus, fewer symptoms of asthma or respiratory disease, and less absenteeism. Nearly 1 in 13 U.S. children have asthma, which leads to more missed school days than any other chronic illness.

” “If you look at this research, it shows how a school’s literal environment–the heat and the mold, or the humidity–directly influences learning,” said Phyllis Jordan (associate director of FutureEd), a think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.

Clean air advocates said that the pandemic funding offers a once in a generation opportunity to make the air breathable for students and staff with asthma and allergies. It also helps schools in California and the drought-stricken West cope with the increasing threat of smoke inhalation due to wildfires.

“This is a huge deal for schools,” said Anisa Heming, director of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit that promotes ways to improve indoor air quality. “We haven’t had that much money from the federal government for school buildings for the past hundred years .”

Still, many school administrators aren’t aware that federal funding for ventilation improvements is available, according to a survey published in May by the Center for Green Schools. According to the survey, about 25% of school officials stated that they didn’t have the resources necessary to improve ventilation. Another quarter said that they were unsure if funding was available.

Even before covid spotlighted the issue of improving airflow, an estimated 36,000 schools needed to update or replace HVAC systems, according to a 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office.

Most schools don’t meet even minimum air quality standards, according to a 2021 report from the Lancet Covid-19 Commission. A pre-pandemic study of Texas schools found that nearly 90% had excessive levels of carbon dioxide, released when people exhale; high concentrations in the air can cause sleepiness, as well as impair concentration and memory.

Baltimore and Philadelphia, cities with many older buildings that lack air conditioning, have all closed schools this spring because of excessive heat. And a year before the covid pandemic hit, schools in states including Alabama, Idaho, Michigan, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas closed due to flu outbreaks.

Many schools have been slow in spending covid relief dollars due to the time-consuming process for hiring contractors and getting federal approval, Jordan of FutureEd said.

Schools were assigned custodial staff to clean surfaces throughout the day during the pandemic’s first year. According to Ian Brown, a resource conservation specialist at Seattle Public Schools, the district asked staffers in Seattle to work overtime to do this cleaning.

School officials claim that parents pressure them to spend money on surface cleaning and disposable wipes, even though science has proven that the coronavirus spreads largely through air. According to a report by the Center for Green Schools, Teachers and parents often trust more visible measures than ventilation improvements that are less obvious.

Not all schools have used federal funding wisely. A 2021 KHN investigation found that more than 2,000 schools across the country used pandemic relief funds to purchase air-purifying devices that use technology that’s been shown to be ineffective or a potential source of dangerous byproducts.

School districts are required to spend at least 20% of American Rescue Plan aid on academic recovery–such as summer school, instructional materials, and teacher salaries–leading some schools to prioritize those needs ahead of ventilation, Jordan said. But she noted that a FutureEd analysis of school district spending plans indicated districts intend to devote nearly $10 billion from the latest round of funding to ventilation and air filtration in coming years, budgeting about $400 a student.

Los Angeles schools, for example, have budgeted $50 million to provide 55,000 portable commercial-grade air cleaners for classroom use. Durham Public Schools in North Carolina is spending $26 million to update ventilation. Schools in St. Joseph, Missouri, plan to spend more than $20 million to replace aging HVAC systems.

In Boston, the school district has installed 4,000 air quality sensors in classrooms and offices that can be monitored remotely, allowing facilities managers to respond quickly when ventilation suffers.

Albemarle County Public Schools, Virginia, have purchased “medical grade” air purifiers to be used in isolation rooms in school nurse offices. This is where children with covid symptoms can wait to be picked up. These units have HEPA filtration and an interior ultraviolet light to kill germs. They are powerful enough to clean the isolation rooms every three minutes.

But workable solutions don’t have to be high-tech.

Brown stated that

Seattle Public Schools used inexpensive hand-held sensors for assessing the air quality in every classroom. Brown explained that the district purchased portable air cleaners to improve ventilation in classrooms.

While replacing a central air system is a major construction project that can easily top $1 million per school, quality HEPA purifiers–which have proven effective at removing the coronavirus from the air–run closer to $300 to $400.

About 70% of schools have at least inspected their heating and ventilation systems since the pandemic emerged, a key first step to making repairs, according to the CDC.

Engineers from Ann Arbor, Michigan have examined “every piece mechanical ventilation in the school area, opening up each unit and inspecting the fans, pumps, and dampers to ensure they’re operating properly,” stated Emile Lauzzana. She is the executive director of capital projects at Ann Arbor Public Schools.

“This is something school districts don’t usually have the money to do a deep dive into,” Lauzzana stated. “It’s unfortunate we had to have a pandemic in order to get here, but indoor air quality is much better today .”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization that provides information to the nation on health issues.

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