Indoor Air Quality

Back to Better: The Clean Air Blueprint for Healthy Schools

Combining science-backed solutions and creative funding mechanisms to create safe, healthy and connected learning environments

By Cheryl Aquadro

With nearly half of United States K-12 schools fully open for in-person learning, parents, teachers and staff are naturally cautious about what this will mean for their health and the safety of those around them. School districts are tasked with earning back public trust at every stage of the reopening process. To instill confidence, K-12 school administrators need to provide enhanced learning environments that are clearly healthy, modern and resilient.

One of the most impactful and comprehensive ways these schools are earning trust as they reopen is by implementing HVAC solutions and clean air strategies. In fact, one of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) recommendations to school districts is to ensure ventilation systems operate smoothly as a part of their reopening strategy, and a recent Government Accountability Office report stipulated that two in five school districts need to update or replace their HVAC systems.

By integrating time-tested, scientifically-proven clean air strategies into existing infrastructure, school leaders can create highly connected facilities that deliver long-term resiliency, sustainability and productivity. And by leveraging the right funding mechanism, they can bring their vision for a healthy school to life without draining their budget.

The science of clean air
The COVID-19 pandemic has given the public a heightened awareness of airborne illnesses and contamination, but even when the pandemic has passed and masks are put away for good, parents and educators alike will expect their schools to prioritize fresh, clean air, which is now recognized as a core element of public health.

In April 2021, The Lancet COVID-19 Commission released a report which summarizes scientific studies quantifying the benefits of ventilation. According to the report, increasing ventilation improved math and reading test scores by 2-3%, improved “power of attention” by 5%, and reduced absenteeism by 2-12%. Having advanced clean air strategies already in place keeps schools prepared for any future emergency, from another pandemic to smoke-billowing forest fires. The clean air solutions that have grown in importance during the pandemic have now become the gold standard for healthy schools, and no district can afford to keep its students in unhealthy classrooms.

Concrete steps to reach healthy building goals

  1. Establish clear targets: Before any equipment can be installed, schools need to assess their facilities’ current indoor air quality (IAQ) to identify any gaps in their current infrastructure. To do so, a trusted third-party partner can determine the facility’s equivalent outdoor air delivery rate, a quantitative measurement of how often a space’s volume of air is replaced, indicating the risk of infection or irritation. Once a benchmark is established, the partner can set target goals based on standards provided by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and the CDC.
  2. Make meaningful infrastructure improvements: With a target goal set, schools can begin making the appropriate infrastructure improvements. It can be difficult to know where to start, but a great first step for any K-12 school on a clean air mission is to upgrade existing HVAC assets. The most up-to-date air handling units (AHUs) provide enhanced ventilation to improve overall IAQ. Even simple updates like upgrading filtration equipment to the latest High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) and Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) filters can increase the amount of clean air and make an impact on indoor health. Another benefit gained by upgrading these assets is enhanced sustainability. The latest HVAC solutions are designed to be increasingly energy efficient, allowing schools to contribute to a healthy planet while creating healthy spaces.
  3. Customize clean air technology implementations: Proper outdoor air ventilation, based on ASHRAE standards combined with high-efficiency filtration, can deliver over 90% clean air. Where suitable, some schools may consider supplementary clean air delivery. Solutions may include proven disinfection solutions like ultraviolet-C (UV-C) lighting or filtration units that can inactivate viral organisms safely and efficiently. Because these solutions are often portable, they can be placed anywhere, allowing schools to customize their clean air strategies to their building layout and needs.
  4. Maintain progress by connecting technologies: Clean air is always a work in progress; it’s not enough for education leaders to simply install new HVAC equipment and move on. Schools should be monitored around the clock to ensure they are continuing to hit their IAQ targets. The easiest way to do so is through integration. By integrating HVAC equipment, sensors and external data measurements (like outdoor air quality) into a single platform, school administrators have advanced insight into their clean air solutions performance, allowing administrators to optimize their systems to protect the health of students, faculty and the building itself. And by monitoring their systems through the cloud, facility managers can access their schools’ IAQ data remotely via a tablet, laptop or even smartphone.

By setting IAQ targets, implementing clean air solutions and integrating them onto a digital platform, districts are empowered to provide a highly connected, modern and data-powered school that delivers an optimal learning environment. When students and educators know and feel they are working in a healthy classroom, they are free to focus on education, ultimately driving student performance and achievement.
Funding clean air without detracting from tightened budgets
For many school districts with budgets already stretched thin by the pandemic, making these infrastructure updates seem out of reach. However, by taking advantage of available relief funds and innovative funding methods, K-12 schools don’t need to detract from their current resources to make these potentially lifesaving facility improvements. Federal and state relief funds are available to school districts across the country to make one-time, pandemic-specific improvements. This includes the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund, with appropriations designated under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA), and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

Since these are one-time, limited funds, school administrators can also leverage alternative procurement methods to build upon these funds. For example, some funding methods wholly transfer the project’s risk and costs to a trusted and long-term partner, removing financial stress and guaranteeing savings that can be diverted to initiatives that directly impact learning. School administrators know that their facilities’ operations and occupants’ wellbeing are in good hands, allowing them to remain focused on education.

In fact, with savings generated from increased energy efficiency and more precise air circulation, these solutions can often pay for themselves. From OpenBlue Buildings-as-a-Service (BaaS), to Public-Private Partnerships (P3), to Performance Contracting, innovative financing options empower schools to put their students and faculty first without draining valuable resources or increasing financial risk.

Delivering healthy classrooms that support a healthy community and planet
Improving indoor air quality (IAQ) may drive up energy use, but that does not have to be the case. The additional costs may be offset by tuning up existing systems and installing energy efficient upgrades. As an example, ASHRAE stipulates that advanced filters can improve IAQ while enabling proper optimization of outdoor intake, potentially lowering the cost and energy typically spent on heating, cooling and conditioning outdoor air. By integrating HVAC systems with other technologies, facilities leaders can even decrease energy usage by calibrating heating and cooling levels based on foot traffic and building usage during the day. Working with an HVAC partner that prioritizes sustainable practices, school districts can rest easy knowing that their clean air updates are not only benefitting students but also the planet they inherit.

After over a year of unexpected challenges that kept students and teachers at home to varying degrees, communities across the country are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. The most powerful way to accomplish a safe return-to-school is through infrastructure improvements that support a robust clean air strategy.

Leveraging relief funds and alternative funding methods, any school district can implement clean air solutions quickly and efficiently. By setting ambitious IAQ goals and making strategic facility upgrades, school administrators can create a healthy, connected and data-driven learning environment that allows everyone to focus on what’s important: learning and growing.

Cheryl Aquadro is director of K-12, Performance Infrastructure for Building Solutions North America at Johnson Controls, the global leader for smart, healthy and sustainable buildings. In this role, Cheryl works with local account teams to create safer, smarter and more engaging learning environments with trusted partnerships for our K-12 customers. Johnson Controls serves more than 6,000 public school districts in the U.S., representing more than 24 million students.