The pandemic continues to expose weaknesses in various parts of our educational system. This fall, one of the most debated was one that is often forgotten: The state of our 100,000 elementary and secondary public school facilities.

America seems to have a love-hate relationship with its school facilities. They are costly to replace, yet when they are in disrepair, they can be expensive to maintain. For many communities, however, they are some of the most heavily used community resources, if not the most.

America’s 50 million children and 6 million educators spend between 30 and 40 hours each week in these spaces, and a school’s core common areas such as gyms, libraries, cafeterias, and auditoriums are used by the community for many evening and weekend events. Public schools account for nearly 7.5 billion square feet of interior space, which equates to almost half the area of all commercial office space in the nation.

Each summer, an army of custodians and maintenance staff comb through schools to make general repairs and upgrades to ready them for a new year. Yet, as the pandemic has exposed, many of these efforts are not addressing fundamental health and safety facility issues, and this should come as no surprise.

Many of these summer repairs focus on cosmetic face lifts such as wax on the floors, fresh coats of paint on the walls, or a new carpet in an office space. They do not address much more costly, but important upgrades needed: indoor air quality.

According to this 2018 National Forum on Educational Statistics report, “Research on indoor environmental health provides overwhelming evidence of the benefits to children and adults that healthy school buildings provide. In a healthy school environment, there is ample fresh air and daylight, and the indoor environment can be regulated, with proper maintenance and operations, to control temperature and moisture.”

The report goes on to address air quality specifically. “Good indoor air quality (IAQ) helps reduce the risk and rate of illness by reducingthe transmission of infectious diseases and removing contaminants that exacerbate or cause illnesses such as asthma. Research shows that good IAQ increases productivity, improves performance on mental tasks, and increases student and staff comfort levels and attendance rates. The primary components of good IAQ are the maintenance of acceptable air temperature and relative humidity, the introduction and distribution of adequate fresh (outdoor) air, and the control of airborne contaminants and pollutants.”

As a result of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control recommends that schools pay close attention to what their ventilation and air exchange capabilities are. Michael Barnum discusses the need for schools to look at this in more detail in this recent Chalkbeat article.

Barnum writes, “…schools are scrambling to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for improving ventilation, seen as crucial to minimizing the spread of COVID-19 indoors. Meanwhile, a spate of recent research has linked air conditioning, air filters, and other building improvements to gains in student learning. That means the stakes of improving America’s school buildings are higher than ever. What’s still unclear is whether schools will be able to address ventilation concerns in the short term to help convince leery teachers and families it’s safe to return — and whether over the long term, they’ll get the resources to address building issues that make it harder for students to learn.”

For a school in need of repairs, short-term fixes may provide temporary relief, but ultimately long-term upgrades may be necessary to correct the deficiencies for good. These are not cheap, but funding may be available. When planning for capital projects, school districts may have access to a variety of state and federal funds to offset the local burden to finance a project. This must be included in any long-range planning efforts for capital projects.

The federal government is able to support program initiatives and personnel programs that impinge directly upon the welfare of the country. Most recently, this support has been offered through stimulus funds that have been made available for schools to use for purposes such as this.

At the state level, programs can vary because every state approaches education funding differently. The amount of assistance a state gives local school systems for new school construction ranges from absolutely no state funds in twelve states to full funding of capital projects in Hawaii. Three out of every four states have some funding sources to help local systems with capital projects such as indoor air quality upgrades.

So, what can classroom teachers and building principals who work in schools with failing air quality systems do in the short-term to address their indoor air quality deficiencies? Here are three tips:

1. Open the windows. Of course, this only works for educational spaces that have access to windows that open, and only when weather permits, but windows can provide a good source of fresh air exchange for an educational space.

2. Make use of portable air filters. These units vary in cost. When purchasing one, be mindful of the size of the space that the unit will be in so that the proper unit can be purchased.

3. Make sure the school’s ventilation system is working well and is properly programmed. An HVAC professional can run some simple tests to check for air flow rates, and work with schools to make adjustments to their current ventilation systems to maximize efficiencies.