3 most popular school ventilation improvements are masking disparities

For example: Some urban schools do not open classroom or bus windows due to air and noise pollution.
By: | June 9, 2022

The now endemic nature of COVID and its continuously emerging variants means administrators are likely reassessing their ventilation systems after taking emergency action earlier in the pandemic.

As leaders plan future improvements, it bears repeating that districts can use ESSER funding to make ventilation improvements that the CDC says have proven to reduce transmission of COVID and other illnesses in schools—and also to create a healthier environment overall. Better ventilation has been linked repeatedly to higher student performance and decreased absenteeism, the agency says.

But a new CDC analysis of the improvements that school leaders are making found disparities based on geography, cost and other resources. Not surprisingly, many more schools are able to open windows than buy high-tech air filtration systems for their classrooms, the agency’s survey found. On the other hand, some urban schools do not open classroom or bus windows due to air and noise pollution.

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“Overall, rural and mid-poverty schools were the least likely to report implementing several resource-intensive ventilation strategies,” said the researchers, who urged policymakers to focus on helping schools and districts make needed HVAC improvements. There are also steps district leaders can take—and steps educators can urge policymakers to take—to get the needed improvements made.

Administrators should look to their local public health professionals and funding agencies to get a better idea of the funding sources available for ventilation projects. K-12 leaders should also seek supplemental training and other technical assistance in identifying ventilation improvement strategies and funding sources, the CDC recommends. Districts should also continue to work closely with their local health agencies to tailor prevention strategies to community COVID levels.

“In addition to preventing the spread of COVID-19 and other infections, such as influenza, ventilation improvements implemented now might lead to broader and lasting improvements in the health of students and staff members,” the CDC says.

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What other leaders are doing

The lower-cost ventilation strategies remain the most popular, according to a CDC survey of administrators conducted in February and March. Here are the top three strategies schools are following and their frequency:

  • Relocating activities outdoors (73.6% of schools)
  • Inspecting existing heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems (70.5%),
  • Opening doors (67.3%) and opening windows (67.2%).

Compare that to the 38.5% of schools that have completely replaced or upgraded HVAC systems and the 28.2% that put HEPA air filters in classrooms. In what may be an unexpected finding, mid-poverty schools were less likely to use portable filtration systems in classrooms and high-risk areas than were low-poverty schools. The report surmised that higher poverty schools might have more experience in accessing federal funds than mid-poverty schools.

“Differences by locale and school poverty level in implementing more resource-intensive strategies might be due to supply chain challenges, differences in school or community resources, or accessibility of technical assistance and support for applying to available sources of funding,” the report concluded.