Six million students across the United States have asthma, a condition that accounts for more than 13 million lost sick days at school. Their return to face-to-face instruction during a pandemic has also raised concerns about complications that could arise if they contract coronavirus.
For K-12 schools, ensuring a healthy and safe environment has been paramount in reopening strategies. Beyond social distancing measures, there has been a clear focus on cleaning measures and products being used to sanitize classrooms. But are they safe for this group of students? And are they safe for all students?
Those questions and others are being answered in a new guide released by the Center for Green Schools, which offers strategies to K-12 schools and districts on the power of purchasing environmentally friendly products, some of the cost benefits and most notably, the health benefits that come with them.
“Healthy schools are critical to rebuilding our economy, and we need to prioritize decisions that allow students, teachers, janitorial staff and communities at large to feel supported and safe,” said Anisa Heming, director of the Center for Green Schools. “We’re providing actionable guidance that education leaders can put into practice now to protect millions of students. Healthy people in healthy places is the fastest way to rebuild a healthy economy, and it starts with investing in our schools.”
Though the pandemic has heightened awareness around the issue of maintaining and fostering healthy class environments, the Center says its guidance can help schools forge an actionable plan for keeping them safe, not only during the COVID-19 crisis, but also in the future.
Why a green initiative matters
The Center for Green Schools aims to ensure that schools are forward-thinking in their green initiatives – focusing on the health and wellbeing of students in physical spaces and also providing the tools for them to seek 21st century career paths. The key to success is schools offers “resilient and equitable learning environments,” according to the Center.
For many students who have asthma, finding that equity is a challenge. Those who have the disease are more likely to come from ethnically diverse or underserved communities and are more likely to be impacted by it. However, their socioemotional development is imperative to the overall success of schools.
One of the ways K-12 districts can help bridge that gap, according to the Center, is by forging a healthy green purchasing plan that can help reduce the amount of irritants and allergens that can affect students and their learning outcomes.
“The prevention guidance provides a list of third-party product certifications to consider, best practices for choosing low-VOC materials, and methods for engaging school decision-makers to implement a new purchasing policy,” the Center says.
One district that found success and a huge cost savings was Michigan’s Grand Rapids Public Schools, which switched all of its chemical inventory to third-party certified green products. The result was not only a safer and more healthy environment for staff and students – free from the 65 chemicals in cleaners they were using – but also a bottom-line reduction of $100,000 per year.
Four strategies for a healthier school environment
In its guidance, the Center for Green Schools targets four areas of concern where K-12 schools can make notable changes, both for the safety of children with asthma and for those working within those buildings. By implementing some of these tips, schools can offer a healthier and more sustainable environment that students and faculty can be proud of.
Cleaning products: The good news is that cleaners can reduce irritants that can trigger asthma attacks. The bad news is that many products contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can be difficult for children’s respiratory systems to handle. Aerosols, bleaches and other sanitizing solutions can be especially harmful. The Center recommends schools turn to third-party certified products that include specific logos such as EcoLogo, Safer Choice, Green Seal and ACMI AP. They also press the importance of limiting exposure of cleaning products to custodians, as well as proper training in implementation and removal of chemical products. For those concerned that replacing chemical cleaners with green ones will break their budgets, one district made the switch and is in line save as much as $50,000, according to the Center.
Filters: Filtration systems that are not routinely maintained have the potential for causing a host of problems for those who are in schools, from students to faculty to workers and especially those who suffer from asthma. Replacing filters in regular, recommended intervals is a must. The Center recommends avoiding “HEPA-type” filters because of the uncertainty around efficiency and potential replacement costs, and instead says to go with MERV-rated filters, particularly those that have a 13+ rating, as long as the unit can handle it. For rooms with rugs, it says to “vacuum frequently with HEPA technology.”
Furniture and Rugs: Because of the potential for off-gassing, benzene and formaldehyde, the Center recommends the purchase of only low-VOC emitting furniture and rugs. Those who have purchased a furniture product on Amazon or Wayfair might have noticed a disclaimer from the California Department of Health, which has strict standards regarding VOCs. Look for products that meet or surpass that standard, ones that contain no VOCs or are VOC-free and feature a Green Label Plus or Certified Indoor Air Quality logo. That also goes for any adhesives, such as glues being used for carpeting, as well as cushions and sealants.
Markers and paints: Surprise the very tools students use for creating seemingly harmless projects could be harmful to them, particularly those than contain high levels of VOC. Permanent markers are a particularly harmful source, containing 400 times the VOCs of highlighters and washable markers, according to a study cited by the Center. As with other purchases above, school leaders should be looking at labels, those that contain the AP seal from the Arts and Creative Materials Institute or labels that say GreenGuard, GreenWise or Certified Indoor Air Quality. As for paint, the Center recommends that projects be left outside until they’ve dried or where ventilation is sufficient, similar to any home painting project.
Additional tips and guidance can be found within the Center’s policy guide, which is on the U.S. Green Building Council website.
Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for District Administration. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org