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Commentary Coronavirus Education

Opinion: Schools should improve ventilation to improve student health and the learning environment

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By Kaleb Clemons

The federal infrastructure bill is historic, no doubt, but an opportunity was missed by excluding funding for school infrastructure. 

The physical condition of schools has a direct impact on student health and achievement, yet many Texas schools are unfit for schooling in the age of COVID-19. After four months of in-person learning and now a new variant of COVID-19, it is up to state and district leaders to act quickly to improve school buildings.

Kaleb Clemons

The pandemic has underscored just how important the physical condition of schools are, particularly their ventilation systems given that COVID-19 is an airborne disease that may stay with us for years to come. Improvements to school buildings must be made to ensure students are truly safe in classrooms.

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The problem is clear, and the solution, improving classroom ventilation, seems to be equally recognizable. The federal government has given nearly $190 billion to state and local districts to help with COVID-19 recovery. This influx of one-time funds is perfect for improving school buildings.

A report by Johns Hopkins University revealed that approximately 54% of public-school districts around the United States needed to make improvements to the mechanical systems. Generally, these improvements were not made prior to the return to in-person learning. Without proper ventilation, students – masked or not – are sharing potentially deadly air particles with their peers and school personnel.  

Ventilation, according to a study by researchers at Harvard’s Chan School for Public Health, is vital to lowering the risk of COVID in classrooms. This could be achieved in several ways: open doors and windows, utilize portable air cleaners, or install mechanical ventilation systems. The last option is the best, but obviously the most expensive. For some school buildings, classrooms do not have windows that open, and some have no windows at all.

Beyond the potential health risks, poor ventilation is also bad for student academic performance. The Center for Green Schools identified research that concluded that when fresh air in a classroom was increased, students were more efficient in completing tasks. The same study found that poor ventilation led to higher chances of student sickness. Student sickness leads to missing school. Missing school then leads to poorer grades. Evidence presented by the Environmental Protection Agency suggests that higher ventilation rates also result in improved test scores in reading and math.

Federal funding is not the only option for schools seeking funding for building improvement. Generally, building projects are funded by bonds voted on by the public. Fort Worth ISD just passed a $1.5 billion bond which will be used for several projects around the district. Conversely, San Antonio districts saw mixed results in various bond elections this year. Bonds are viable options for school improvement, but the process is often long. Districts have money right now and they must make improvements to building ventilation as soon as possible.

When using federal funds for building improvement, focus on ensuring fresh air is being cycled into each closed space. This may require installation or complete renovation of existing ventilation systems. When a full renovation of ventilation systems is not feasible, districts have decided to place portable air cleaners in every classroom. Another solution would be to update windows to ensure they open easily and allow fresh air to flow in.

The benefit of in-person learning is null if students become sick and have to be absent for several days. This is true regardless of mask and vaccine protocols. Pandemic aside, proper ventilation is vital to protecting students from all airborne illnesses. This is not only an opportunity to improve the current situation, but an investment in the long-term health of students.

Kaleb Clemons is a masters student in Education Policy and Planning at the University of Texas at Austin.

Cover illustration courtesy of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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