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4 Key Steps to Monitoring Air Quality in Schools

Joe Di Noto

The following article is based on our recent webinar on indoor air quality monitoring in schools, presented by Kaiterra CEO Liam Bates. Read key excerpts below, or watch the full webinar FREE here: watch now.

In this article:

1. Why Everyone is Talking About Air Quality in Schools

2. What Schools Can Achieve by Focusing on Air Quality

3. 5 Reasons Air Quality is (Often) Especially Bad in Schools

4. The 4 Step Strategy to Monitor IAQ in Schools

5. Case Studies and Additional Best Practices

Why Everyone is Talking About Air Quality in Schools

Just a short while ago, indoor air quality (IAQ) was mostly a discussion topic for experts and academics. But in the past few years, it’s been capturing headlines in mainstream media - whether in the context of airplanes, office buildings, or schools. For obvious reasons, the COVID-19 pandemic has made everyone much more aware of what’s in the air that they breathe.

Schools in particular are a thorny issue. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools have struggled with monitoring and improving indoor air quality, resulting in prolonged school closures in an effort to drive down infection levels. 

Stopping the spread of disease is crucial, but it’s become increasingly clear that children not being able to go to school for multiple years is also a serious issue. There's been a lot of controversy around whether and when schools should reopen, and whether at-home learning is the same as in the classroom. Many of us feel that in-person learning plays an important role in education, an approach that has been adopted by the Department of Education:

…It’s important that we remain committed to mitigation strategies and prioritize in-person learning


DoE, 2022: Staying In School In-Person, January 2022 (PDF)

While the focus is on reopening, it’s also clear that this needs to be done in an intelligent way - so that if there are further outbreaks, new diseases, or other risks, we have the infrastructure to mitigate the spread without needing to go into full lockdown and school closures. In the search for more sustainable and less disruptive approaches, monitoring and improving air quality will play a major role.

As we’ll see in the next section, SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses are only part of the story, and there are several excellent reasons to be mindful of air quality in schools.


A Note on California Classrooms

Are CO2 monitors now required in all California classrooms? 

California requires CO2 monitors only in classrooms of schools that are participating in CalSHAPE. Schools that have not pursued CalSHAPE funding aren't required to monitor indoor air quality for CO2 levels. 

However, commencing in January 2023, all new K-12 school classrooms will require CO2 monitoring under CalGREEN. Legislation requires that all CO2 monitors must be hardwired and cannot be powered only by battery. 

Kaiterra IAQ monitors allow you the opportunity to hardwire your devices to meet California state legislation. To learn more about how our IAQ solutions can help with your school projects, speak with an air specialist now.


What Schools Can Achieve by Focusing on Air Quality 

While COVID-19 might have been the catalyst for much of the current discussion, indoor air quality has many other implications. Both children and teachers spend many hours of their lives at school, and breathing clean air has short and long-term benefits for their academic performance, health, and well-being.

Air quality concerns in schools

Source: Kaiterra webinar

There are three broad areas of concern that IAQ projects can address:

  1. Controlling airborne pollutants: As we’ll detail below, there are many unique sources of airborne pollutants in schools. To protect children from the harmful impacts of volatile organic compounds and other pollutants such as CO2, we need to understand which of these pollutants are present, in which areas in the school, and at which times of the day.
  2. Managing the spread of disease and viruses. Whether it’s COVID-19, flu, or other airborne viruses, infections can spread incredibly quickly at schools and unfortunately often into the families of children. Rather than close down entire schools, monitoring IAQ allows us to take steps to minimize the spread of viruses, for example by increasing natural or mechanical ventilation.
  3. Performance, comfort, health, and wellbeing of students, teachers and staff. Poor air quality can cause short and long-term health issues, and it can also impact cognitive abilities and degrade performance (as shown by recent research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health). Even the most amazing, results-driven teachers will struggle when the environment itself is negatively impacting learning potential.

5 Reasons Air Quality is (Often) Especially Bad in Schools

IAQ is always an issue in indoor environments where ventilation is intermittent at best, but the school environment can pose challenges beyond those that we find in, e.g., office air quality. Why is air quality in school so bad?

Schools are often old. The average school building was constructed in the 1960s or 1970s, when the trend was to isolate the indoors from the outdoors as much as possible. There are benefits to this approach for insulation, but it also means that any pollutants inside the building aren't going anywhere. 

Why is air quality in schools so bad?

Source: Kaiterra webinar

This could include pollutants such as CO2, which are generated by human exhalation inside the building, or it could include VOCs or particulate matter. We want to make sure that we're not trapping these pollutants inside, and instead are diluting them with fresh air from the outside. Unfortunately, that’s not how most schools are built.

Occupant density and proximity. Schools often have four times as many people occupying the same space when compared to office buildings. A classroom full of children is significantly denser compared to an open-space office environment. This means more CO2 and more VOCs are generated in these spaces.

Varied pollutant sources. Air pollutants in schools come from both outdoors and indoors:

  • Outdoor air pollution, such as particulate matter and ozone, can accumulate inside the school, especially if the air isn’t being filtered
  • Different chemicals can be used in the school - art and science supplies, paint thinner, art supplies, glue... If these are not handled correctly, such as if lids are not screwed on tightly, they will constantly be off-gassing and emitting VOCs in the process. 

Insufficient HVAC systems. There could be several different reasons for issues with school HVAC systems. The system may just be old if the school was built 55 years ago, and it probably wasn’t designed according to the requirements and the standards that we have today,  or with the technology that we have today.

As school budgets are reduced, maintenance costs are often one of the first things to get slashed - which could mean filters aren’t replaced frequently enough, or mechanical equipment isn’t maintained.

Unsuitable add-ons. Many of us remember spending a year or more of our schooling in “temporary” portable buildings which then seemed to become permanent fixtures. This is something that happens when schools run out of space and are forced to expand - they may add buildings that were not designed according to air quality standards, and may not receive proper ventilation or maintenance.

The 4 Step Strategy to Monitor IAQ in Schools

With all these factors at play, air quality at schools can quickly become an issue. Mitigating potential problems requires a comprehensive combination of measurement, action, optimization, and communication.

IAQ action plan for schools

Source: Kaiterra webinar

Let’s briefly look at each of these 4 steps:

1. Monitor and Analyze

Using air quality monitors, schools can start collecting data to inform their next actions. This is an important first step to identifying whether air quality issues exist in a school, to what extent, and is the cornerstone of a data-driven approach.

The five air quality metrics to be aware of are PM2.5, TVOC, CO2, temperature and humidity. In the webinar, we go over each one and explain what might cause a buildup of this pollutant in school environments.

Different size comparisons of PM2.5

Particulate matter is one of the 5 key air quality parameters to monitor in schools.

2. Turn Insights into Action

Once you have data, you can start to drive insights by finding patterns and trends in the data. By identifying areas, times of day, or seasons where air quality is notably worse, you can begin to form hypotheses about the root cause of these problems - and then proceed to come up with innovative solutions.

Here are some examples of insights you can get from air quality data:

  • High CO2 levels: If you see that certain classrooms have higher CO2 levels, this would usually mean that these spaces are not receiving enough ventilation considering the number of occupants in them. Solutions can range from increasing ventilation, to airing out the room between classes, to shifting schedules and locations to prevent overcrowding.
  • Elevated particulate matter (PM) readings: PM2.5 is usually caused by outdoor pollution. If we measure consistently high levels, it could mean we need to improve filtration, such as installing filters with a higher MERV rating. If the polluted air is building up during periods when the school isn’t occupied, we could use ventilation to flush out the air before students arrive.
  • Relative humidity: Humidity is important both for disease transmission - viruses spread much more easily through very dry air - as well as for the feeling of comfort. Very humid air can feel very unpleasant. If you measure extreme humidity levels indoors, consider addressing this using standalone humidifiers or retrofitting HVAC systems to consistently maintain a rate of 40-60% relative humidity.

Turn IAQ insights into action

3. Identify Trends and Optimize

By collecting data continuously rather than sporadically, you’ll be able to start mapping out the state of air quality in the school. This is the advantage of using air quality monitors that collect data all the time, rather than relying on one-off testing (which is still the common case in most schools).

By collecting data continuously, you’ll be able to:

  • Get more accurate readings: air quality is dynamic, and can shift dramatically during different seasons or even different times of the day. Measuring year-round rather than during an inspection that happens once or twice a year will allow you to know the true state of air quality, which could be much better or worse than you would have otherwise assumed.
  • Ability to act in real-time: being aware of problems sooner means being able to address them faster, and before they cause complications. If you identify poor air circulation or high pollution, you can take steps to address this (as in the examples we gave in the previous section), before these problems start to disrupt classes or cause absences.
  • More comprehensive representation of your space: by monitoring different classrooms, buildings, and areas, you can pinpoint the areas where problems are acute, and then address the problems in that specific area.

4. Instill Confidence and Display IAQ Data

Transparent reporting in real-time will alleviate any concerns about air quality. When you know you’ve addressed the main problems and have improved air quality at the school, you have the opportunity to showcase it - for example, using TV monitors, online dashboards, or email reports that you send out periodically.

Communicating air quality is important both for teaching staff and for the parents of children. It shows that the school cares about clean air and creating a positive indoor environment that promotes learning, and helps alleviate concerns that both of these groups might still have.

Case Studies and Additional Best Practices

Want to learn more? Watch the entire on-demand webinar for a more detailed review of all of the above, plus:

  • The 5 air quality parameters explained in-depth
  • Real-life case studies from educational institutions that have dramatically improved air quality on their premises
  • An overview of Kaiterra’s air quality monitoring solutions

Watch the Recording Here