Three Simple Ways to Improve School Indoor Air Quality


What makes a healthy learning environment for students?

While it’s tempting to assume that the indoor environments where children and teachers spend more than 1,000 hours a year are optimal, the pandemic highlighted the dramatic under-investment in school facilities nationwide and the very real impacts on students. Even before the pandemic, nearly half of U.S. schools reported indoor air quality problems that put the health of students and staff at risk. On top of contributing to health concerns, issues such as failing HVAC systems, poor ventilation, and chemical exposure are linked to poor concentration and test performance in students, adding preventable barriers to achievement. 

These challenges affect not only students, but educators and staff as well. Nearly 80 percent of teachers responding to a survey in Chicago and the District of Columbia reported that school facility conditions were a key factor in teaching quality. In fact, approximately half of those who graded their facilities “C” or below would consider leaving — and the most frequently cited problem was, you guessed it, bad indoor air quality. 

Simple Ways to Improve Indoor Air Quality in Schools 

While the challenge is formidable, progress is attainable, even with a limited budget. Improving indoor air quality in schools is not an all-or-nothing proposition. There are measures that can dramatically improve school indoor air quality without requiring a full infrastructure overhaul.

Green Seal partnered with Healthy Schools Campaign to combine our scientific expertise with the deep knowledge and experience of award-winning K-12 and university facility directors to create the free and publicly available Healthy Green Schools & Colleges standard, with an emphasis on identifying these accessible measures. As the first national standard for healthy and sustainable school facilities, it helps facility professionals point to a science-based third-party benchmark when explaining the improvements they are making to facility management processes and procedures.

While the standard highlights dozens of steps school facility leaders can take, here are three high-impact ones for schools to start with: 

1. Establish an HVAC Maintenance Plan 

“How often are technicians really doing filter exchanges?” asks Kimberly Thomas, Senior Director of Services, at the University of Georgia Facilities Management Division and a member of the Healthy Green Schools & Colleges Steering Committee. “You need to make sure you regularly manage your preventive maintenance plan. Preventive maintenance cannot be sporadic if you want to get optimal efficiency out of these systems.” 

HVAC systems control the air exchange in the room and clean the air. Even with older systems, proper maintenance is essential to make sure the components are working as effectively as possible. 

A maintenance plan formalizes standard operation procedures and should include regular or quarterly HVAC system inspections using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ventilation checklist from Tools for Schools. This means quarterly cleaning of clean air supply diffusers, grilles, return registers, and outside air intakes to prevent contaminants from entering the system and spreading around the room. It should also include quarterly inspections of outside air intakes to ensure they work properly and that no standing water is in their vicinity, and quarterly inspections of the building automation system, dampers, actuators, and physical system components. 

2. Assess Ventilation

Are your school’s HVAC systems meeting the minimum requirements of the ANSI/ASHRAE ventilation standard for acceptable indoor air quality? Documenting an HVAC system’s outdoor air intake flow rates is the first step toward improving ventilation if it isn’t up to par. 

One way to do this is to follow the ventilation guidelines in the WELL Health and Safety rating, including having a qualified engineer provide the school with an assessment of the extent to which the current mechanical system in each building can operate without recirculating air, the highest supply rate of outdoor air the current mechanical system can provide, and whether modifications to system controls could increase the supply of outdoor air (for example, ventilating for longer hours). Then, make sure the report includes information on how any potential HVAC system modifications would affect the energy consumption, thermal comfort conditions, and maintenance processes.

If the HVAC system can’t achieve adequate ventilation and air exchange for the occupancy level, providing supplemental air-cleaning systems (such as standalone HEPA filtration units) in classrooms and other assembly areas can get air quality to where it needs to be. 

3. Choose Safer Cleaning Products 

The chemicals inside cleaning products matter; they can be hazardous to humans and the environment in addition to contributing to poor indoor air quality. 

Chemicals commonly found in conventional cleaners have been linked to birth defects, cancer, and respiratory disease, among others. In fact, studies have found that regular use of conventional spray cleaners is associated with a 50% increase in asthma symptoms – and while custodial workers are most at risk, building occupants come into contact with these chemicals daily. 

Choosing products that have been independently certified for healthier, more sustainable ingredients helps protect students, teachers, and staff from these negative health effects. To find products certified by third parties, look for the badge of a reputable ecolabelling organization on the packaging. Certification marks from trusted nonprofits like Green Seal indicate that the cleaning product is safer and more environmentally friendly than conventional alternatives while also demonstrating proven cleaning performance. 

A Golden Opportunity for School Facilities

School facility management professionals are vital stewards of school environments, leading on health, safety, and sustainability through a stream of daily decisions with big impacts. While experts are doing a lot with a little, budget realities mean they often lack proper funding and resources for the essential work they do caring for students and staff. From cleaning equipment to air filters and HVAC systems, schools across the nation can use these funds to improve the health, sustainability, and indoor air quality of their campuses to make schools safer for all. 

However, schools have a rare opportunity right now to focus on their facilities. The American Rescue Plan and 2021 Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act provided tens of billions for American schools, including funds that can be used for health- and sustainability-focused facility upgrades. 

The Healthy Green Schools & Colleges program was designed with a points-based standard to meet schools where they are and allow them to improve at their own pace, whether they are just getting started identifying health and sustainability improvements to their facilities or already are leaders.

The way that schools manage their facilities speaks to how they value their students, staff, and surrounding communities. The Healthy Green Schools & Colleges standard helps facility professionals identify a path to providing the quality of school facility that every student deserves.