Optimizing acoustics in schools supports wellness, inclusive learning and cost savings

Noisy classrooms can have a negative impact on inclusive learning, as well as on the health and wellness of students and teachers, and on a school district's bottom-line
Mick Willis, CPA, serves as Chief Financial Officer for Peoria Public Schools in Illinois.

Noisy classrooms can have a negative impact on inclusive learning, as well as on the health and wellness of students and teachers, and on a school district’s bottom-line.

Up to one of every four words cannot be understood by students in many classrooms, according to a study by the Acoustical Society of America. When students cannot hear their teachers, they struggle to stay focused, to understand lessons, and to perform well on tests. For every 10-decibel increase in noise, students perform 5.5 points lower on their national standardized tests.

For students with hearing impairments, learning disabilities, or who speak English as a second language, hearing clearly is a critical part of their success and an essential consideration in creating an inclusive learning environment.

Noise exposure affects concentration, accuracy, motivation, sleep, and has been associated with stress-related health issues. These undesirable attributes not only are experienced by students but also teachers. When teachers cannot hear their students, they must raise their voices causing extra strain and stress, which can lead to irritability, distraction, absences, and dissatisfaction at work. Based on the average annual salary plus the day-rate for a beginning substitute teacher, a full-time teacher’s absence in Peoria, Illinois, costs an estimated $467/day.

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With greater awareness of the cost and impact noise has on our students and teachers, more districts are requiring good acoustics, and building standards and guidelines are evolving more stringent requirements. The Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS), Green Globes, and the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED v4 rating system, now specify that classroom acoustics have a maximum reverberation time of 0.6-0.7 seconds and use a high Noise Reduction Coefficient (NRC) ceiling panel. Ceilings with a high NRC absorb sound, ultimately improving speech intelligibility and acoustic comfort, allowing students and teachers to better understand one another.

Further contributing to healthy, productive classrooms, sound-absorbing ceiling panels may be certified as low-emitting products to support indoor air quality. The EPA reported that up to half of the nation’s schools have problems linked to poor indoor air quality, increasing children’s risk of chronic allergies and asthma. Asthma alone is the leading cause of children’s absenteeism with approximately 14.7 million school days missed each year.

Certified ceiling products are available, without added chemicals, to naturally prohibit the growth of mold, mildew, or potentially harmful microorganisms. At one school in Illinois, mold issues forced a 10-month closure and more than $29 million in remediation. Beyond avoiding abatement costs, healthy interiors support the wellness of teachers and students, giving more children the opportunity to focus on daily learning.

Along with contributing to improved indoor air quality, ceilings enhance natural lighting when panels feature a smooth, white, reflective surface to direct light more deeply into the school’s interiors. Natural light is recognized as a benefit of high-performing schools and associated with physical and mental health, and improved test scores.

Ceiling panels that reflect up to 86% light are widely available. Greater reliance on daylight lowers the demand for electric lighting and associated cooling, which further reduces energy use, saves money, and conserves natural resources.

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For districts with environmentally responsible purchasing policies, ceilings can be specified with natural and recycled materials, such as metal or stone wool. Because these materials resist humidity, moisture, and water, they can be installed on a new school before the building is weathertight, accelerating construction timeframes. Similarly, schools that turn off their HVAC systems when class is not session do not risk returning to a moisture-laden, sagging ceiling where panels have become stained or fallen out of their suspension system.

With durable, easy-to-clean ceiling products, school districts gain the economical advantage of cost-savings through greater longevity. Nearly 140,000 square feet of acoustic ceiling panels, the equivalent of one or two schools, are replaced each year in Illinois’ Peoria School District. By reducing the need for repair and replacement, the district would save $280,000-$560,000 for every year it extends the lifespan of its ceiling panels. This not only minimizes school facility costs but also maximizes taxpayers’ dollars and districts’ budgets.

Designing schools that promote learning excellence, requires careful consideration of choosing resilient products to optimize acoustics, indoor air quality, energy efficiency, and operations – adding value to districts’ bottom-lines, communities’ health, and students’ educational outcomes.

Mick Willis, CPA, serves as Chief Financial Officer for Peoria Public Schools in Illinois. He has 25 years of experience as a CFO in a public-school setting. He has been an adjunct professor, worked for Fortune 500 companies, and co-founded a company that provided management and financial consulting services to education-related organizations. He is a member of the Government Finance Officers Association, and the International Association of School Business Officials (ASBO) and its Illinois chapter.

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