Improving Indoor Air Quality in Schools Helps Students Succeed

Research shows that improving indoor air quality in schools may pay dividends beyond reducing COVID-19 exposure.

Published on Sep 30, 2021 in COVID-19, Health

Healthy air quality has long been a concern in New Jersey’s schools, especially in aging buildings with antiquated ventilation systems. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has put an even greater spotlight on school air quality. As students return to the classroom across the state for in-person instruction, public health experts have highlighted ventilation as an important preventive measure against the spread of COVID-19, alongside vaccination, mask-wearing, and physical distancing. CDC research showed that COVID-19 rates were roughly 40 percent lower in schools that reported implementing measures to improve ventilation.  As a result, many districts have prioritized ventilation in their reopening plans, including filtration and air purification.

Improved Air Quality Helps Students Learn Better

Air quality improvements may pay dividends beyond reducing COVID-19 exposure. Research has shown that reductions in indoor air quality coincide with decreases in test performance in school. This is particularly concerning for the many New Jersey school children who live in areas with low outdoor air quality due to proximity to highways, busy intersections, and industrial facilities. One study found that 13.8% of New Jersey schools are within 250 meters of a major roadway, with high-poverty schools eligible for Title I funding 67% more likely to be near a major roadway than their higher-income counterparts. Although less obvious than curriculum or teaching staff, improving indoor air quality may be an important, if overlooked, component of student and teacher performance.

New Jersey School Implementation Of Air Quality Standards Can Vary

Like all public buildings, New Jersey public schools are governed by the state’s indoor air quality standards, N.J.A.C. 12:100-13.1 (2007). The State has issued guidance summarizing these requirements and providing recommendations for improving ventilation. This standard requires checking whether carbon dioxide levels exceed 1,000 parts per million, which may require regular carbon dioxide monitoring. However, implementing these standards is largely dependent on proactive approaches by individual school districts and boards of education, and some of these changes can be expensive, especially changes to a school building’s ventilation system.

Resources Are Available For School Districts To Improve Their Ventilation And Air Quality

Federal funding through the American Rescue Plan can be used on physical ventilation improvements and improved airflow in school buildings, including HVAC system upgrades, filters or filtration devices, and carbon dioxide and other air quality measurement devices. Guidance is available here.

New Jersey has also dedicated some of its American Rescue Plan funds at the state level to school districts for additional improvements in ventilation, thanks to new legislation signed in August. This program will be managed by the Board of Public Utilities. The draft program guide for this program is available here.

If local lawmakers and school board officials take advantage of these new resources, the current focus on ventilation and airflow in schools could result in substantial improvements for student and school staff well-being, as well as academic performance.