What makes a school a good place to learn?

Certainly, strong teachers and administrators, motivated students, and a great curriculum are essential. But no less important is the quality of indoor air. Just as a healthy diet and physical activity can improve educational performance, healthy air quality and proper ventilation also can make a real difference.

A report by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) following studies in four countries found that proper ventilation in schools can improve test scores by as much as 10 percent. There really is magic in the air.

The Domino Effect

Unfortunately, many schools are not making the grade when it comes to indoor air quality. The LBNL study found that only about half of U.S. public elementary school classrooms have proper ventilation rates. So we have to wonder if we’re starting in a learning deficit mode.

New York City teachers attribute academic losses and increased absenteeism to the sweltering temperatures students face in late spring and early fall. Chicago recently announced a five-year, $100 million plan to install or upgrade air quality control systems in more than 200 schools.

The focus must be on indoor temperature, air quality, and ventilation given their direct connection to student health and achievement, not to mention the productivity for teachers and school staff. Improved ventilation means better physical health for all.

Allergens and respiratory irritants accumulate in under-ventilated areas, putting students at increased risk for disease and complications from respiratory illnesses such as asthma. This means more sick days for students, which often require at least one parent to stay home from work, compounding the overall costs of poor air quality in terms of both dollars and lost productivity.

The LBNL study also found, for example, that if all schools in California had proper ventilation, student absences would go down by 3.4 percent, schools would get about $33 million more in attendance-related funding, and families would save about $80 million in caregiver-related costs.

Improved health means improved achievement. Studies show that, in addition to the financial cost, attendance has a direct impact on student achievement. Students who experience chronic absenteeism for health or other issues are more likely to experience problems throughout the course of their academic careers and are subsequently more likely to drop out of school before graduation. What’s clear is that temperature-controlled, better-ventilated schools produce better-prepared students.

Perfect Place to Start

The good news is improvements in ventilation and air quality can be accomplished in a way that generates long-term cost savings for schools and the communities that support them. As school leaders prioritize projects that improve air quality, they should choose those that provide maximum energy efficiency. Air quality upgrades should improve energy efficiency by at least 30 percent.

Such improvements would more than pay for themselves through energy savings over the first few years in Chicago’s schools, for example. These savings would free up cash for school districts. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes that, if schools adopted just common ENERGY STAR practices for appliances and lighting, they could save $2 billion each year in energy costs, or enough to hire 35,000 more teachers.

Schools are also the perfect place to start focusing on improved air quality. Studies show that nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population – including teachers, students, and administrators – spend the bulk of their days in schools. Ninety percent of those individuals are vulnerable to polluted indoor environments: children and women of childbearing age.

Targeting this population with improved ventilation could mean substantially lowered health care costs, as well as reduced transmission of disease both at schools and at home. Yet recent surveys reveal that only about half of U.S. schools report having indoor air quality management programs. Ironically, one of the biggest obstacles to improving air quality in educational facilities is education itself. Great opportunities exist to educate key decision-makers – school board members, administrators, and community members – about the costs associated with improved air quality.

The value of investments in air quality, not just to the people in educational facilities, but to the facilities themselves, is mostly overlooked. And those costs can be immense. As the Minnesota Department of Health points out: “Poor air quality can hasten building deterioration. One study of an elementary school showed that if $8,140 had been spent over 22 years on preventive maintenance, $1.5 million in repairs could have been avoided.”

Yet decision-makers sometimes think only in the short term. They consider immediate product costs rather than long-term operating value. Only about one in five states requires indoor air quality management. For the other 80 percent, air quality management is a voluntary issue. Leaders in the HVAC industry have a clear responsibility to help educate our educators when it comes to the importance of air quality.

Just Breathe

According to LBNL, the key to improved air quality is making sure schools and other buildings breathe. For today’s modern, energy-efficient buildings to breathe properly, officials need to control air intake. Your older school buildings may have been drafty, but drafts improved ventilation. New school buildings can be airtight. This is why modern schools need systems to take in outside air, move it evenly throughout the building, and remove stale air.

A study in Denmark found that, by doubling the outdoor air supply rate, the average performance of schoolwork improved by a range of about 8 percent to 14 percent. The study also found that reducing the classroom temperature by a range of 2 degrees would improve the average school performance by a range of about 2 percent to 4 percent. Together, at the high end of the range, that’s nearly a 20 percent improvement in performance.

These ventilation systems also have to be actively managed and maintained to make sure that ventilation rates reflect what is going on inside a building. For example, if the hallways are being cleaned with a chemical cleanser, ventilation rates should increase to move any fumes and odors out of the school building. Ventilation systems have to work in concert with the air conditioning and heating systems to improve overall energy efficiency.

When the humidity level is high outside, ventilation systems need to deal with the moisture that likely will enter a school’s air ducts and movers. Otherwise, that moisture can lead directly to mold and mildew, which are unhealthy and often settle and grow in hidden spaces that are difficult and costly to access for cleaning.

Technology exists today to remove humidity, increase efficiency, and improve indoor air quality to create healthy, high-quality learning environments. For example, outdoor air economizers increase time-average ventilation rates while simultaneously saving energy. The projected economic benefits from improved health exceed the system’s energy cost savings.

Design software can help schools account for spaces such as gymnasiums, cafeterias, and labs, and compare the energy-cost performance of HVAC design alternatives. Today, there is an efficiency level for just about every budget.

Small Moves

As the California Department of Education points out, even where school districts are not ready for a full ventilation system overhaul, there are steps schools can take to increase indoor air quality. These span a broad range and include routine maintenance as simple and inexpensive as:

  • Using a wet cloth rather than a feather duster.
  • Regularly changing air filters and cleaning air ducts.
  • Immediately fixing leaks and cleaning spills to reduce and prevent mold.
  • Switching to odorless cleaning supplies and storing toxic materials such as paints and solvents in well-ventilated areas.

All of these are small measures that help improve and maintain indoor air quality over time at practically no added cost. For schools that want to start investing in minor improvements, spending a modest amount on air filtration upgrades can be a valuable first step.

There is science to support improved performance from green schools that we can’t afford to ignore. We’re committed to green schools because they lower costs – and improve student performance. By making small moves toward higher indoor air quality, schools can avoid the creeping crisis of a complete system overhaul.

The situation facing countless school districts across the country shows that investments in air quality are not optional. Schools will have to pay one way or another, either in renovation costs or in student performance. So when schools modernize to achieve energy-efficient air quality, higher student performance and lower overhead costs will result. That’s a win-win lesson suitable for any classroom.

Rachel Gutter is director of the Center for Green Schools. John Mandyck is chief sustainability o­fficer for United Technologies Building & Industrial Systems.

Reprinted with permission from the American School Board Journal, October 2014©National School Boards Association. All rights reserved.