A spotlight on interior air quality in schools

by FM Media
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Indoor environment quality in schools impacts the health, well-being and learning of students. In COVID-19 times, many schools rely on facility managers and cleaners who may have limited understandings of air quality management. Dr Vyt Garnys and Professor Tony Arnel offer four steps required to safeguard learning environments.

A classroom with poor lighting or inadequate heating rarely go unnoticed. But, until recently, good air quality wasn’t on the radar of most Australian educators. However, as the current COVID-19 crisis rolls on, many Australian educators and administrators are rethinking more than just class sizes and desk configurations. 

They are also considering how the air quality in their schools affects health and well-being of staff and students, and long-term learning outcomes. For several decades we have known that indoor environment quality (IEQ) influences learning outcomes. The phrase ‘sick building syndrome’ (SBS), was named by the World Health Organisation back in 1986 as a catch-all term for a range of illnesses caused by poor IEQ. Now called building related illnesses (BRI), symptoms often mimic other conditions, like the common cold or seasonal flu: headaches, fatigue, sore throats, dry eyes and running noses, for example. Symptoms can also be a sign of more serious illnesses like Legionnaires’ disease.

Studies have found relationships between lower ventilation rates in school buildings and increased absenteeism due to SBS and BRI, notably asthma and other respiratory infections. This should be cause for alarm, as asthma is the most common chronic disease among children in Australia. Up to 20.8 percent of our nation’s children are affected by asthma at some point; that rate is among the highest in the world. More insidious, the US Environment Protection Agency recognises that poor IEQ affects learning outcomes and, in turn, state and national economies.

We know quality building ventilation and filtration systems may reduce the risk of students contracting aerosol contagious diseases like the flu and measles. And we also have clear evidence that good IEQ boosts learning outcomes. One seminal piece of research from the Californian High Performing Schools program found that good lighting, air quality and ventilation in schools elevated test scores by 25 percent. 

The Harvard TH Chan School for Public Health, which reviewed more than 200 scientific studies on school environments in 2019, says the evidence is “unambiguous”. Buildings impact student health, thinking and performance and “investment in school buildings is an investment in our future”. Conversely, poor IEQ is very expensive for the nation.

COVID-19 and the classroom

So how can we measure IEQ and its effects in our schools?

We instinctively know when a building’s IEQ is poor, but in recent years we have also been able to confirm those gut feelings with a deep pool of data. With the help of sophisticated equipment, questionnaire surveys and advanced computing, we can gather information on a host of environmental parameters – temperature, humidity, air movement, ventilation rates, air quality, daylight, artificial lighting, sound and acoustics – to make better decisions about our buildings.

A school is a complex ecosystem of buildings and equipment. By necessity, governments can only provide broad guidelines for COVIDSafe practices, because it is impossible to ‘bespoke’ every building. The touch points, cleaning regimes and infection risks in playgrounds or canteens will be different to those in the classroom, library or staff room. 

Despite their complexity, many schools depend on the advice of facilities managers and cleaners with limited expertise and data in air quality management or infection control, and limited understanding of the effectiveness of control measures. This is why we are seeing cleaners employ useless or damaging products like vacuum cleaners and dry dusters that disperse fine particles. We are also seeing untrained tradespeople removing and carrying loaded air-conditioning filters through high traffic areas. Some cleaning companies claim that their services are a ‘corona killer’ and charge eye-watering sums for undefined, unverified and unchecked ‘deep cleans’. 

In the absence of standards, schools can be forgiven for wondering whether the tens of thousands of dollars being spent on deep cleans are doing the job. At the moment, they have no recourse if challenged by the media, parents or public. 

Priorities for high-performance schools

It has been an incredibly challenging year for educators, but there are several good news stories among the doom and gloom.

First, children make up a smaller proportion of diagnosed cases of COVID-19 in Australia, and the evidence so far suggests their risk of infection is lower than other demographics. A global review is finding that, while children can still be carriers, they are less likely to spread the virus to their families. This is certainly welcome news.

Second, there is a growing body of empirical evidence that buildings with high-performance ventilation, filtration and humidity systems reduce the spread of pathogens like coronavirus. 

While most schools cannot afford to replace all their air-conditioning and ventilation systems immediately, there are four steps school leaders can take to safeguard their learning environments:

  1. Define your risk profile: Identify and prioritise COVID-19 risks – with the help of independent scientific and engineering advice –throughout your school, depending on the typology of your buildings, their attributes, occupancy, demographics and more.
  2. Develop a defensible plan: Defensible risk management policies must address surfaces, air, waste, cleaning audits and occupancy protocols. 
  3. Draw on data: Rely on regular epidemiological surveys and indoor environment quality testing to assess your air quality. Make proactive adjustments to optimise the health, wellbeing and productivity from your school buildings.
  4. Depend on proven engineering and scientific advice: Turn to the experts to help upgrade equipment and technology for the new challenge. Quality advice is a small price to pay when balanced against the risks and the cost of damage control for schools and the nation.

Without clear, regulated standards, schools face a new set of uncertainties. But investing in good scientific, engineering and risk management expertise now will set your school up for a resilient and productive future.

And as we walk together on the road to recovery, school educators and administrators can demand more from the design of new, renovated and existing buildings. COVID-19 has taught us that good IEQ should be a standard feature of every classroom.

Dr Vyt Garnys is one of Australia’s leading indoor environment quality specialists. Professor Tony Arnel is Industry Professor at Deakin University’s Faculty of Science, Engineering and Built Environment and former Global Director of Sustainability at Norman Disney & Young.

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