Improving Air Quality in Schools: 10 Reasons Why You Should Care & How You Can Help

Improving air quality in schools is a growing concern and one that you may need to know more about. As parents it is important for us to understand how we can help educate and improve conditions like air quality in our schools. All in all, this is a topic I don’t know a whole lot about, so I invited someone who does, Susan Marchese, to share more on the topic.

Improving Air Quality in Schools: 10 Reasons Why You Should Care & How You Can Help

By Susan “Sue” Marchese, CAE, MS
I am the parent to three girls, ages 24, 20, and 15. Ever since 2014 as I started to work for AIHA,
the association for occupational and environmental health and safety (OEHS) scientists and
professionals. My mama bear instinct about so much involving health and safety for my
daughters while at school has been heightened to a new level of awareness.
Having worked at AIHA through the pandemic was even more enlightening, as OEHS
professionals are like “doctors for buildings”.

Their approach to infectious disease prevention and mitigation made sense to me. They call it the “Swiss cheese model” of causation. Like Swiss cheese, there are holes here and there, but if you stack several pieces of the cheese one in front of the other, it will eventually plug the gaps. If you can plug as many as you can, the less dangerous a problem may be.

Creating air quality in schools became a mission I wanted to spread more about.

Understanding this, I was compelled to contact my school-aged daughter’s school
administrators to learn more about their efforts to ensure the school had an effective indoor air
quality plan as children flooded back into the school building after quarantine.
The knowledge I gained through AIHA empowered me to speak with administrators on a topic
that directly impacted my daughter’s health, and the health of the sons and daughters of others
within the school.

Here are the top 10 reasons to speak with your child’s school administrators about indoor air

1. Masks aren’t enough to Improve Air Quality in Schools

When returning to school after the pandemic, we were told to clean surfaces after use
(one piece of the cheese), maintain a distance of six feet (another piece stacked on top
of the other one), and wear a mask (one more piece). Yet, COVID continued to surge.
The OEHS scientists I work with explained to me behavioral changes alone can’t lower
the risk of infection. There is something bigger (still leaving holes for the hazards to get
in). Something we as parents can’t control: healthy indoor air quality.

Working from home while taking care of their kids full-time.

2. Poor indoor air quality can impact health

Did you know that students, teachers, and staff occupy school buildings for up to 90% of
the school day during the week? If they are there for extended programs (e.g., clubs or
after care), it may be even longer. Because of this duration, and the fact that building
systems can directly impact the air of the indoor environment, the children and staff are
exposed to air that can have a direct impact on their health. As a result, failure to improve poor indoor air quality inside classrooms takes a toll on student concentration and performance and is linked to increased school absences.

3. Invisible hazards are real

Indoor air quality hazards emerge from outdated heating, ventilation, and air
conditioning systems, as well as off-gassing of construction materials, and interior

4. All school buildings are different

There is a wide range of school buildings built by different contractors that do not follow
similar structural designs. As a result the building materials and ventilation systems used (e.g.,
engineering controls) may also vary between schools. There is no one-size-fits-all
approach to indoor air quality. Each facility needs a preliminary, individualized system
evaluation to identify the most appropriate approach.

5. Schools should evaluate the HVAC system

At a minimum, schools should follow the manufacturer maintenance schedule for each
building system. If there is no set manufacturer maintenance schedule or if a facility
manager is considering changes, upgrades, or wants to understand their current status,
a baseline facility health risk assessment and outline by an OEHS professional for future
maintenance is recommended.

6. Being proactive is smart

Identifying an issue before it becomes a problem should be the ultimate goal of this new
indoor air quality focus. Each facility needs a preliminary, individualized system
evaluation to identify the most appropriate control. Having facility health risk
assessments performed to address identified issues before they result in human health
impacts will be a long-term return on investment, and a beneficial one when the health
of the occupants is ultimately improved by healthy facility systems.

7. Creativity in the classroom can help

Is your school using outdoor air whenever possible? Depending on the climate and
outdoor humidity, it may not be feasible to introduce outdoor air into the occupied
space (e.g., classroom) and expect the system to function in an energy-efficient manner
or function as it was designed and intended.

8. It’s not just about the COVID pandemic

The recent spike in respiratory illnesses and the flu have resulted in many school
closures. With the flu season upon us, it’s a perfect time to speak with your school
administration about indoor air quality.

9. Professionals can help

OEHS professionals are experts in working with facility managers to mitigate risks
involved with indoor air quality hazards. To find an OEHS professional in your area.

To access free resources find them here.

10. We love our children

As parents, I believe we have an obligation (and a right) to contact our school boards (or
at least our school principals) to ensure that the breathable air in our children’s schools
is being properly monitored. Information is the key to keeping our children safe at
home and at school.

About Susan “Sue” Marchese
Sue Marchese is AIHA’s Managing Director, Strategy and External Affairs. AIHA is the
association for scientists and professionals committed to preserving occupational and
environmental health and safety in the workplace and community. Sue earned a BS in Political
Science and International Relations from Fairfield University and holds a Master of Science,
Organizational Development degree from New School University. She is a Certified Association
Executive (CAE).

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