Green Building, Heating and Cooling, Safety

Report Examines How U.S. Schools Tackled Air Quality During COVID

The Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council has released a new report detailing how K-12 school districts around the country have continued to manage indoor air quality (IAQ) within their schools during the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

back to school

The report, which was co-authored with researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and developed with technical support from ASHRAE, illuminates strategies and challenges from school districts that serve over 2.6 million students in over 4,000 schools. It builds on an April 2021 report, which was among the first national surveys of on-the-ground implementation of IAQ improvements at schools during the pandemic.

According to the Center for Green Schools, the new report highlights the urgent need to better support school districts with implementation of airborne infection control strategies to support mitigation of the immediate COVID-19 threat, future pandemics, and seasonal epidemics, as well as to improve overall IAQ.

“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 report 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. Importantly for national advocates, the new survey responses indicate that school districts in different locales (urban versus non-urban) are seeking guidance from different types of sources.

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. To support schools, the White House’s updated COVID-19 strategies include a focus on IAQ in schools, with the federal government investing millions to help schools improve ventilation as a way to curb the spread of the virus and avoid shutdowns.

Key findings of the report include:

  • 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.

“Studies have shown a direct link between indoor air quality in schools and student performance and attendance,” said 2021-22 ASHRAE President Mick Schwedler, P.E., Fellow ASHRAE, LEED AP. “This study further underscores the importance of not only providing technical guidance for improving indoor air quality, but the need for practical implementation strategies. We trust that the findings in this report will lead to more knowledge sharing, expanded partnerships, and greater investments to improve indoor air quality and decarbonize our schools.”

The report was compiled from a national survey of public school districts during October-December 2021 to assess the implementation of a range of ventilation, filtration, disinfection, and air quality monitoring strategies; and was followed by focus group discussions with participants. The full report can be found here.