Twenty percent of the American population spends its days inside elementary and secondary schools, so it’s little wonder that indoor air quality ranks among the most critical factors affecting students’ ability to learn in classrooms across the U.S. And while it’s easy for administrators to assume that poor indoor air quality only happens to other school districts, statistics say otherwise.
According to a study cited by an online CNN article in January 2012, one-third or more of U.S. schools have indoor air quality problems including mold and dust, which can lead to respiratory issues like asthma. The same article also cited a national survey of school nurses where 40 percent of those nurses knew students and school staff negatively affected by poor indoor air quality, which in turn can negatively influence test scores, increase absenteeism and hinder the abilities of students and teachers to learn and teach.
As stated earlier, indoor air toxins can be mold or dust but also can include cleaning chemicals, paint fumes, mercury, lead, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds. Schools in particular are more susceptible to these IAQ challenges as many buildings are older in age and in poorer condition, and they hold many more occupants per square foot than typical office buildings. Additionally, schools often must utilize rooms or buildings that were not designed for teaching purposes to accommodate increasing occupant numbers. And in many cases schools have a variety of heating and cooling equipment and building automation made by different manufacturers, all operating differently and requiring varied maintenance procedures and software programs.
Faced with a mountain of challenges from the effects or future risks of poor indoor air quality coupled with continuous budget cuts, yet tasked with meeting performance requirements posed by state and federal governments, what options do schools have?
Fortunately there are inexpensive measures schools can take to create a healthy indoor environment for students and teachers, such as implementing a comprehensive indoor air quality program. The following 11-step program, developed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), can help elementary and secondary schools to improve and attain quality indoor air. It also could be applied at colleges, universities, preschools and day-care centers and may be useful for architects and engineers planning new schools or renovating existing ones.
Since no two schools are exactly alike, consider tailoring the program to meet your current needs.
Once a school district makes maintaining a healthy indoor environment for learning a priority and commits to implementing a program to maintain it, it should review the EPA’s Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Action Kit, which defines basic indoor air quality issues in schools and the roles everyone can play. The Kit contains a variety of materials to help a school district implement an indoor air quality program. Networking with other schools who have created a program also is encouraged.
Obtaining support from school leadership is a critical component of implementing and maintaining a successful indoor air quality program. Additionally, educating all students and school staff about the importance of quality indoor air will help to ensure the success of the program. The EPA created this program to have a minimal financial impact on school budgets and resources.
Leaders are critical for any program, and this one is no different. The indoor air quality coordinator’s role is team management and leadership, delegating responsibilities and being the general day-to-day champion of the program. This person might be a principal, teacher, nurse or facility manager or the role could be shared between two people.
Teams are made stronger by the sum strengths of their members. The EPA encourages schools to form an air quality team, selecting representatives from nine groups including teachers and principals, facility operators, school board members, custodians and students. It also may include parents and community members.
Knowing your school’s history is vital to the program. Has the building ever contained asbestos? Have pests been a problem? Has flooding ever occurred? Once the school’s history has been recorded, the data should be organized and kept in a central location for easy future access.
Next, with checklists provided by the EPA, the air quality team is encouraged to create a profile of the school’s current indoor air quality status, prevent potential air quality problems and resolve problems when they occur. Information highlighting the importance of good indoor air quality, the unique activities of the building’s staff in their specific work areas (teachers, custodians, nurses, facility directors, etc.) and a memo from the administration team should be distributed to staff members.
The checklists are essential for the indoor air quality program’s success as they provide information about where potential pollutant sources exist and also are helpful for tracking the locations where health problems occur. Checklist data should be recorded on a checklist log by the coordinator and reviewed.
In this step the entire indoor air quality team is encouraged to walk the school to obtain a quick overview of the conditions affecting indoor air quality. This is not a detailed inspection, however. During the walkthrough the team should rely on sight, smell, touch and hearing senses while visiting areas such as the cafeteria, science laboratories, maintenance equipment storage areas and art rooms.
It’s possible that the team will identify some indoor air quality problems during the walkthrough. Not to fear! Once identified the team should prioritize the problems into short-term and long-term categories, implement solutions immediately for problems impacting health or safety, and then focus on resolving problems that are low-cost or can be corrected in-house. Additionally, a plan should be created for resolving any long-term or expensive problems.
In this step a school creates indoor air quality policies and develops a comprehensive, proactive management plan, which will act as a roadmap for the air quality team, helping the school to prevent indoor air quality problems and addressing new problems as they arise. Policies might address food or animals in the classroom, carpet, painting and cleaning procedures. The plan also should include how the school will address and respond to emergency situations.
A final step in implementing a successful indoor air quality program is follow-up inspections. Here it’s determined if actions were taken according to plan, if the intended results were obtained and if the area is being maintained properly. Another step is to develop and maintain a schedule for indoor air quality activities such as checking for mold growth, conducting indoor quality training and setting a date for implementing the next round of activities based upon the checklists from step 6.
While it may appear daunting, the bulk of this indoor air quality program is clear and easy to follow. School leaders must remember that attaining and maintaining quality indoor air is an ongoing process and does not occur overnight; patience is key. It can’t be overstated, however, that developing and implementing an effective indoor air quality program can help provide a safe and healthy environment for students and school staff, and it can save a school district the many difficulties and expenses of investigating and correcting indoor air problems.
Review a template of the EPA’s indoor air quality program online by clicking here. In addition, the EPA also provides a template for an indoor air quality management plan, based on similar plans being used by schools nationwide. You can access it here.
For more information, please email Jonathon Goering by clicking here or call 316-265-9655.
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