How clean air in schools improves children's health and learning ability

Teacher speaking to class full of students.

As children return to the classroom we must prioritize clean air. Image: Unsplash.

Russ Carnahan
Senior Policy Advisor, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, LLP
Rasha Hasaneen
Vice President, Innovation and Director, Center for Healthy & Efficient Spaces, Trane Technologies
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  • Air pollution has long been a threat to health, but COVID-19 has highlighted the need to improve indoor air quality.
  • Schools around the world should use COVID-19 relief funding to upgrade indoor air infrastructure.
  • Studies show that clean air leads to improved learning environments.

Clean air may be a basic human right, but unfortunately it’s not a reality for many school children around the world – putting them at greater risk of exposure to airborne illnesses and pollutants. Despite mitigation efforts, COVID-19 will be with us for a long time, not to mention future viruses and other illnesses that keep children out of school, such as the common cold, flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). While we can’t eliminate germs, we can curb their spread in schools by addressing air filtration and overall air quality.

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Air pollution has long been a threat to human health, but the global pandemic has escalated the urgency associated with indoor air. Given that the average American student spends more than 14,000 hours in a classroom over their lifetime – more than a quarter of their life – the air inside schools matters. It’s also important to note that schools tend to be densely populated, with typically four times as many occupants than office buildings with a similar floor plan and square footage. Yet, educational infrastructure in most countries around the world has long been underfunded and over-extended.

Prioritize the physical space

With many schools receiving pandemic relief funding, there is an unprecedented opportunity to invest in long-lasting changes that will improve current learning environments and benefit future generations of students. School infrastructure has been low on the list of priorities in many countries for years, but the pandemic has helped to boost it higher on the global agenda, shining a light on the indoor air problem.

Governments must earmark relief funding for school infrastructure upgrades and school districts must commit to implementation, with a renewed focus on modernizing heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. It may be tempting to spend relief funds on the latest tech gadgets, but first, we need to prioritize the most basic need: upgraded physical buildings that provide healthy and safe spaces where children can learn.

Image: Trane.

The pandemic has forced school administrators around the world to experiment with a variety of measures for keeping schools safe. While not as attention grabbing as mask mandates and vaccine innovations, air quality improvements through ventilation and filtration, have emerged as an effective way to curtail the spread of airborne illness. One study, for example, conducted by the CDC and Georgia Department of Health found that COVID-19 cases were 39% lower in schools that improved air ventilation.

Given ample reported data and best practices on how to modernize schools, countries do not need to start from scratch – they can consult existing resources, such as the 2021 State of Our Schools Report and the US Department of Energy’s Better Buildings Initiative, and learn from those who are further along on their journeys.

Communication and transparency are key, and currently many parents and teachers feel uninformed. Whether a school is working to address air quality now or plans to in the future, the status of upgrades and efforts should be reported regularly to discourage parents and teachers from taking air quality monitoring into their own hands, like sneaking CO2 monitors into school buildings.

Distance learning is a temporary fix

Teachers surveyed across eight countries consistently reported that their students had lost educational ground while forced to learn remotely during the pandemic, revealing that online learning is not as effective as in-person teaching. And not surprisingly, children from poorer households were disproportionately impacted and suffered from greater learning loss, exacerbating existing educational inequalities. Teachers working in high-poverty schools found virtual classes to be especially ineffective, rating it 3.5 out of 10.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

Technology provided a way for students to stay engaged while the world battled the pandemic but now, two years in, it’s clear that kids are better off in the classroom. Not only is the educational cost of online learning too high but the social, emotional and mental impacts of remote learning are too devastating. As teachers work to catch kids up academically, governments and school administrators must address the air quality, which is fundamental to keeping children healthy and schools open.

Clean air will benefit students during the pandemic and beyond

In addition to slowing the spread of airborne viruses, schools need to mitigate the impacts of climate change, including upgrading aging facilities to keep occupants safe and comfortable in the face of increasing pollution and extreme temperatures. For schools struggling to meet current standards, it will only get more challenging so they must act now. Inefficient school buildings cost more in the long run, leading to high utility bills. If air systems worked better, saved resources could be reinvested in technology, books, teachers’ salaries, etc.

Upgrading to modern HVAC systems that monitor air quality, maintain comfortable temperatures and ensure proper filtration will also likely improve academic performance. An economist from the London School of Economics makes the case that air quality impacts test scores, with students performing worse when assigned to classrooms with higher levels of air pollution and better when in classrooms with air purifiers. Indoor air pollution has also been linked to an increased likelihood of increased absenteeism from school.

While we may not be able to thwart the increasingly transmissible COVID-19 variants, one thing we can control quite easily is the air, and we should do it now on a global scale. Our children’s education and health depend on it.

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EducationAir PollutionGlobal Health
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