Four Ways To Improve Indoor Air Quality In K-12 Schools

Upgrades and modifications to enhance IAQ are critical, and funding from COVID-19 relief bills can help facilities teams make them happen.

By Danny White

One thousand hours. That’s how much time most American children spend at school1 every year — when there isn’t a pandemic, that is. COVID-19 closed school buildings for much of 2020 and parts of 2021 to keep kids — as well as educators, administrators, and school facility employees — out of confined indoor spaces where the virus could spread through the air or via close contact.

While COVID-19 shined a light on indoor air quality (IAQ) in schools, it should have been a priority long before the pandemic. Poor IAQ can lead to health problems2 such as fatigue and headaches; cause or worsen asthma and other respiratory illnesses; and even affect students’ ability to learn. Recent academic research found3 “compelling evidence…of an association of increased student performance with increased ventilation rates,” yet “ventilation rates in classrooms often fall far short of the minimum ventilation rates specified in standards.” An estimated 41% of U.S. school districts4 need to update or replace heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in at least half of their schools, amounting to about 36,000 schools across the country.

IAQ K-12 School
(Credit: Getty Images/Drazen Zigic)

Improving IAQ in schools should be treated as a priority. It starts with upgrading, modifying or retrofitting critical building systems or features, such as HVAC systems. School facilities teams, therefore, have an important role to play in creating healthier indoor spaces with building improvements that support better IAQ.

But any talk of building improvements raises two questions: How can schools pay for these projects and where do they begin?

Funding IAQ Upgrades

While school budgets are always top of mind, it’s also important to realize poor IAQ can end up costing schools more5 in the long run by accelerating deterioration and reducing the efficiency of their physical plant and equipment, leading to expensive repairs. HVAC systems are also among the largest energy users in schools6, and system improvements could cut the $6 billion that public schools spend on energy annually by up to 25% — a potential savings of $1.5 billion7.

Total costs for improvements will vary, but are unlikely to drain a school’s budget, even if multiple HVAC systems need to be replaced. Academic research found the net annual costs of increasing ventilation rates8 in U.S. public schools is “less than 0.1% of typical public spending on elementary and secondary education in the United States.” In schools with relatively modern infrastructure, Honeywell estimates that the cost of improving IAQ is just $11 to $15 per student.

In addition, schools have an opportunity right now to partially, or even fully, pay for building upgrades by capitalizing on available government funding. In 2020 and 2021, Congress passed three stimulus bills that provided close to $190.5 billion9 to the Elementary and Secondary Emergency Education Relief (ESSER) Fund. The ESSER fact sheet specifies10 that this funding can be used to improve the indoor air quality in K-12 school facilities, as well as repair and improve school facilities to reduce risk of virus transmission and exposure to environmental health hazards.

The funding from the three bills is available to State Education Agencies (SEAs) through September 2023. The application process varies by state, but usually requires a LEA (Local Education Agency) to submit a budget for approval to their SEA. The last chance to receive any funding from the first bill is approaching in September 2021, which means the time to apply is now.