Poor air quality has drastic effect on student learning

A classroom with poor lighting or inadequate heating rarely goes unnoticed. But until recently, good air quality wasn’t on the radar of most Australian educators.
Proper ventilation is essential

A classroom with poor lighting or inadequate heating rarely goes unnoticed. But until recently, good air quality wasn’t on the radar of most Australian educators.

However, as the current COVID-19 crisis rolls on, many Australian educators and administrators are not just rethinking class sizes and desk configurations.

They are also considering how the air quality in their schools affects health and wellbeing of staff and students, and long-term learning outcomes.

We have known that indoor environment quality, or IEQ, improves concentration, engagement and, ultimately, learning outcomes for several decades.

The Harvard T.H. Chan School for Public Health, which reviewed more than 200 scientific studies on school environments in 2019, says the evidence is “unambiguous”. Just some of the research has found:

  • 5 per cent decrease in “power of attention” in poorly ventilated classrooms, roughly equivalent to the impact that a student might feel from missing breakfast
  • 20 per cent faster progression on math tests and 26% on reading tests in one year when the classroom had better levels of daylight and fresh air
  • 4 per cent decrease in absenteeism from asthma and other respiratory illnesses when indoor air quality rates are increased.

We also know that buildings with good quality ventilation and filtration systems, when combined with good infection control measures, can halve the risk of students contracting contagious diseases that spread by aerosols, like the ‘flu and measles.

COVID-19 and the classroom
So how can we measure IEQ and its effects in our schools?

We instinctively know when a building’s IEQ is poor, but in recent years we have also been able to confirm those gut feelings with a deep pool of data.

With the help of professional knowledge, sophisticated equipment, questionnaire surveys and advanced computing, we can gather information on a host of environmental parameters – temperature, humidity, air movement, ventilation rates, air quality, daylight, artificial lighting, sound and acoustics – to make better decisions about our buildings.

A school is a complex ecosystem of buildings and equipment. By necessity, governments can only provide broad guidelines for COVIDSafe practices, because it is impossible to ‘bespoke’ every building. The touch points, cleaning regimes and infection risks in playground or canteen will be different to those in the classroom, library or staff room.

Despite their complexity, many schools depend on the advice of facilities managers and cleaners with limited expertise and data in air quality management or infection control, and limited resources to measure their effectiveness.

This is why we are seeing cleaners employ useless or damaging products, vacuum cleaners and dry dusters that disperse fine particles. We are also seeing untrained tradespeople removing and carrying contaminated air-conditioning filters through high traffic areas.

Some cleaning companies claim that their services are a “corona killer” and charge eye-watering sums for undefined, unverified and unchecked “deep cleans”.

In the absence of standards or verification, schools can be forgiven for wondering whether the tens of thousands of dollars being spent on deep cleans are doing the job. At the moment, specialty advertised cleaners are expensive. Schools, without independent audits, have no verifiable recourse if challenged by the media, parents or public.

Priorities for high-performance schools
It has been an incredibly challenging year for educators, but there are several good news stories among the doom and gloom.

First, children make up a smaller proportion of diagnosed cases of COVID-19 in Australia, and the evidence so far suggests their risk of infection is lower than other demographics. A global review has also found that, while children can still be carriers, they are less likely to spread the virus to their families. This is certainly welcome news, if verified.

Second, research into the decay rate of COVID-19 means that lower levels of the virus are found on many surfaces within four days. This suggests time can also be an important factor for risk management.

And third, there is also a growing body of empirical evidence that buildings with high-performance ventilation, filtration and humidity systems reduce the spread of pathogens like coronavirus.

While most schools cannot afford to replace all their airconditioning and ventilation systems immediately, there are four steps school leaders can take to safeguard their learning environments:

  • Define your risk profile: Identify and prioritise COVID-19 risks – with the help of independent scientific and engineering advice –throughout your school, depending on the typology of your buildings, their attributes, occupancy, demographics and more.
  • Develop a defensible plan: Defensible risk management plans must address site and building specific surfaces, air, waste, cleaning audits, behaviour and occupancy protocols.
  • Draw on data: Rely on regular epidemiological surveys and indoor environment quality testing to assess your air quality. Make proactive adjustments to optimise the health, wellbeing and productivity from your school buildings and prevent emergency incidents.
  • Depend on proven engineering and scientific advice: Turn to the experts to help upgrade equipment and technology for the new challenge. Quality advice is a small price to pay when balanced against the risks and the cost of damage control for schools and the nation.

Without clear, regulated standards, schools face a new set of uncertainties. But investing in good scientific, engineering and risk management expertise now will set your school up for a resilient and productive future.

And as we walk together on the road to recovery, school educators and administrators can demand more from the design, operation and maintenance of new, renovated and existing buildings. COVID-19 has taught us that good IEQ should be a standard feature of every classroom.

The future of each child, and the country, are at stake.

Dr Vyt Garnys is one of Australia’s leading indoor environment quality specialists. Tony Arnel is Industry Professor at Deakin University’s Faculty of Science, Engineering and Built Environment and former Global Director of Sustainability at Norman Disney & Young. Norman Disney & Young is a holistic engineering firm. CETEC is a specialist in technical, laboratory and scientific risk management solutions. Both independent global companies have extensive experience in the design and delivery of healthy controlled environments.