Most Schools Are Poorly Ventilated––Why Are We Not Talking About This Before Reopening?

by Nikkya Hargrove
Originally Published: 
Most Schools Are Under-Ventilated And That’s A Big Problem
Scary Mommy and Chris Baldwin/Getty

Parents, students, and teachers are combatting so many personal, academic, and professional issues as schools begin to initiate their reopening plans. While some plans are stronger than others, and every state seems to be doing something slightly different (even from town to town, plans differ), there is one thing experts agree on — the need for clean air and proper ventilation in schools.

After all, there is evidence that COVID-19 is airborne, and outbreaks have been traced to groups of people who congregate in poorly ventilated areas. Packing kids and teachers into poorly ventilated classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, etc., is something that should be avoided at all costs.

Even before COVID-19 was on our radar, a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 41% of public schools nationwide were using outdated HVAC systems, which can negatively impact air quality. Now that we are in the throes of a deadly pandemic, and also gearing up to send our kids back to school, this issue is more important than ever before. But, we know public schools are drastically underfunded, so the solution will not quick or easy, unfortunately.

When I was in high school, my art teacher had severe asthma. She walked around with her inhaler in her pocket every single class because she never knew when she would have an asthma attack. She kept the doors open and windows cracked, even on the coldest of days, to combat the chalk or fumes from her students’ artwork clogging her airways. And she was onto something; the EPA suggests opening windows and/or screen doors as part of a measure to keep your home (or in this case, school) well-ventilated.

My own kids, who are slated to return to school in the second week of September, also suffer from asthma. I worry about them going back to school and being confined in the classroom all day. As it stands right now, my kids will be returning to school five days a week in-person. Parents do have the option to do a hybrid of three days in class and two days distance learning. Or commit to keeping their kids home for distance learning — the district is leaving it in the hands of the parents with the caveat of: “It is important for students and teachers to return to in-person sessions not only for growth but for social and emotional well-being, as well.”

There is no mention of what they will do to support the ventilation within the school, save to say, they will follow “State and local guidelines.” But if opening a damn window will keep them safe — then I say, open the window and I hope it makes it onto my state’s list of mandatory guidelines. This is one approach schools can take to help clean the air and fight against the coronavirus infiltrating the air systems within schools; they can open windows. Best of all, it’s easy, and it’s a free option to keep the air within classrooms and hallways a bit cleaner.

Schools can also purchase portable fans (again funding is likely an issue here), open windows, and mandate the wearing of masks in schools. But what else can they do?


According to Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, there are many options to help decrease the spread of the virus. He notes that the spread can decrease if only there is good compliance with the recommended strategies. Those strategies are ones we are already doing as a society (most of us): practice social distancing, wear masks, handwashing, and provide safer air by way of an air filtration system.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) published a comprehensive 33-page guide to advise schools and universities on how to best prepare their air quality systems “to help designers retrofit and plan for the improvement of indoor air quality and to slow the transmission of viruses via the HVAC systems.”

The key seems to be not only in maximizing ventilation, but minimizing — or avoiding — air recirculation. A research paper published in May found that “[T]he spread of aerosolized SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, inside public buildings could be suppressed using engineering controls such as effective ventilation, possibly with air filtration and disinfection and avoidance of air recirculation and overcrowding.” While air recirculation might be the most energy-efficient option, the paper’s authors warn, air conditioners should operate on 100% outdoor air.

Another option, as suggested by Joseph Allen, is to embrace outdoor learning. For teachers and students alike, this may be a wonderful change of scenery and an easy (and free) way to keep everyone safer and breathing easier. Holding class outside has many benefits, thought it can present challenges too. No solution here is perfect.

According to Allen, 90% of all schools are under-ventilated, and bad airflow harms student health and performance. Schools are meant to educate, socialize, and keep kids safe — clean air is very much a part of what parents, teachers, and kids expect from their schools.

Schools are saddled with countless burdens in the United States. They battle a lack of funding, a lack of diverse teachers, a lack of support for kids, few (if any) support staff on the payroll like social workers, school counselors, staff and student retention — and now, they must also battle the coronavirus and all of the unknowns which come with it. And, these new ‘unknowns’ could have deadly consequences.

If parents do decide to send their kids back to school, and teachers who can show up to teach do, then the least we can do for our schools is ensure they have the proper ventilation systems in place. Teachers and students must be able to count on heading back to the classroom with clean, well ventilated air. Because now more than ever, their lives may literally depend on it.

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