Schools, Like All Buildings, Can Either Help or Hurt Our Health

As we all struggle with the impacts of COVID-19, this statement has never felt more accurate.  And as school administrators and employees work tirelessly to prepare for reopening, we must recognize that there is not a single solution, and every scenario has difficult tradeoffs. One thing is true for all schools, however – where students learn and teachers educate matters! 

Control measures can be put into place to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission as school buildings reopen. According to the Schools for Health: Risk Reduction Strategies for Reopening Schools guidance document, the holistic approach for risk reduction must encompass all of these areas: healthy classrooms, healthy buildings, healthy policies, healthy schedules, and healthy activities.  Each of these separate areas need attention and cannot exist in isolation as we prioritize the health and safety of our students, teachers, and staff

While social distancing, mask-wearing, and modified student schedules are all incredibly important in our fight against COVID-19, there are two major aspects that cannot be overlooked as we think about reopening our schoolsbuilding ventilation and cleaning and disinfectinprotocols.  How can we ensure that our students and teachers are breathing clean air in their school buildings? How can we ensure what we are using to combat the virus transmission is not further harming our students’ and teachers’ respiratory systems?  

These areas are not easy to spot check. While it is easy to see if your child’s teacher is wearing a mask, it is much harder to identify if the air handling units in the school building have been switched to 100 percent outdoor air.  This is stated not to incite fear, but to acknowledge that we need to be asking different questions of our schools as they consider reopening. What if we begin to discuss and think about indoor qir quality in our school buildings not just during the pandemic, but also after it ends (because we have to believe that there is an end in sight!)? How can we use this discussion about healthy indoor air quality and environments as an opportunity to facilitate better educational environments and learning outcomes for all students?  This could be our opportunity to reinvest in our students and teachers AND their health through building modifications and operational practices.   

According to research conducted by CMU professor, Erica Cochran Hameenresearch studies [14,15] have shown a correlation between low indoor air quality and reduced student attendance. In a 2004 multiple-building study of 436 classrooms in 22 elementary schools in Washington and Idaho, Shendell et al. of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) determined that a 1000 ppm increase in net (indoor minus outdoor) classroom CO2 concentration is associated with an average 0.7 percent decrease in annual average daily student attendance, indicating that attendance may be improved by an increased ventilation rate and lower CO2 concentrations [15]. 

Join GBA staff and CMU’s Erica Cochran Hameen as we explore healthier cleaning practices next week and healthier ventilation practices the following week.  This is our chance to reinvest in our school buildings and prioritize health and well-being for all students.   

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