The Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has released a new report that highlights an urgent need to better support public schools with implementation of airborne infection control strategies and to improve overall indoor air quality (IAQ) to mitigate the immediate COVID-19 threat, as well as threat of future pandemics and seasonal epidemics.
The report, Managing Air Quality in the Pandemic: How K-12 Schools Addressed Air Quality in the Second Year of COVID-19 was compiled from a national survey of public school districts from October to December 2021 to assess the implementation of a range of ventilation, filtration, disinfection, and air quality monitoring strategies.
“Maintaining good indoor air quality is vital to support the health and wellness of students and faculty,” said Anisa Heming, director for the Center for Green Schools. “School districts recognize that proper ventilation is critical to curbing the spread of airborne diseases like COVID-19. However, more than two years into the pandemic, they still need support to find the right strategies and resources to make the necessary changes.”
The study, a follow-up to the April 2021 report Preparation in the Pandemic: How Schools Implemented Air Quality Measures to Protect Occupants from COVID-19, shows that schools prioritized increasing outdoor air intake by whatever means were available to them and reflects on how the pandemic and schools’ responses to it have evolved.
The report states widespread education of school system administrators and staff is needed to ensure awareness of both the widely agreed-upon IAQ recommendations and the availability of federal COVID-19 relief funds for IAQ measures. U.S President Joe Biden administration’s updated COVID-19 strategies include a focus on IAQ in schools, with the federal government investing millions to help schools improve ventilation as way to curb the spread of the virus and avoid shutdowns.
The Center for Green Schools report, which was co-authored with researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and developed with technical support from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), illuminates strategies and challenges from school districts that serve over 2.6 million students in more than 4,000 schools.
Among major findings:
- The top challenge for schools in implementing many of the recommended IAQ measures was that buildings’ HVAC systems were not designed to implement the recommendations. Specific challenges were not found to be associated with any particular school district characteristics studied, such as demographics, locale, or size.
- School district characteristics such as demographics, locale, and size were not associated with the number of IAQ measures taken but were associated with the implementation of specific measures, such as increasing outdoor air through HVAC systems and assessing outdoor air delivery.
- American Rescue Plan (ARP) Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding has been used to support the implementation of IAQ measures more than funding from operating or capital budgets. Just over half of school districts reported that they felt they had access to funding to support additional IAQ-related building improvements.
- Non-urban districts were more likely to lean on state and local guidance, and urban districts were more likely to use federal-level guidance and guidance from national organizations like ASHRAE.
- Over a quarter of districts responded that there were no new plans to implement additional ventilation, filtration, or other building changes in schools.
“Even with effective strategies and funding available, school systems are still challenged to implement recommended indoor air quality measures,” said Donny Simmons, president, Commercial HVAC Americas, Trane Technologies, which supported the development and release of the Center for Green Schools report. “Among the many barriers illustrated in the report is that indoor air quality is not one-size-fits-all; school systems need more support to develop tailored solutions that address industry best practices and the specific needs and desired outcomes for the school.”