In the past, education revolved around the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. However, with recent wildfires and the emergence of new COVID-19 variants, the invisible factor of air quality has taken center stage in the minds of parents and educators in British Columbia. A study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has shed light on the concerning reality that indoor air quality (IAQ) in North American workplaces can be up to five times more polluted than outdoor air, and schools are no exception. With students returning to classrooms this month, many stakeholders, including parents, teachers, and school boards, are seeking solutions to ensure clean air within educational settings.
Currently, air quality regulations vary among federal and provincial jurisdictions, with none mandating the use of high-efficiency filtration systems. In British Columbia, school districts are required to ensure that HVAC systems adhere to Occupational Health and Safety and WorkSafeBC standards, and ventilation systems must meet ASHRAE standards. However, these standards fall short of what is truly needed to safeguard our children’s health.
But why is the air we breathe so crucial? Consider this: children are more vulnerable to pollutants than adults. They breathe a greater volume of air relative to their body weight, and their bodies are actively growing, rendering them more susceptible to environmental pollutants. Consequently, children face a heightened risk of experiencing adverse health effects due to insufficient IAQ or falling victim to Sick Building Syndrome, characterized by chronic respiratory symptoms resulting from poor ventilation and IAQ. In the classroom, inadequate ventilation has been linked to diminished cognitive development, increased absenteeism, slower response times, reduced focus, and decreased productivity.
Research indicates that the reverse is also true. Even minor improvements in IAQ lead to significant enhancements in learning and cognition. Classrooms with improved air ventilation witnessed an 11 percent increase in productivity and achieved 14 to 15 percent higher scores on standardized tests once indoor air quality was optimized.
While we all aspire to see students thriving in their in-person learning experiences this year, it is crucial to acknowledge that the existing mandates may not suffice. Therefore, it becomes imperative to take proactive measures to safeguard the health and safety of both students and teachers. One effective approach is to recognize the signs of subpar air quality, understand its sources, and learn how to enhance it.
Here are some tips and tricks to enhance air quality:
- Natural Ventilation: Encourage the regular opening of windows and doors to improve natural ventilation. Opening multiple windows can create crossflow and promote fresh air circulation. If windows have both top and bottom openings, utilize both for maximum airflow.
- Regular Cleaning and Dusting: Consistent cleaning is vital to eliminate accumulated dust, dirt, and other pollutants. Dust surfaces, vacuum carpets and rugs, and mop floors to reduce allergens and enhance indoor air quality.
- Advocate for Advanced Filtration Technologies: Embrace cutting-edge filtration innovations to elevate IAQ and promote energy efficiency. Collaborate with local authorities, city councillors, and provincial representatives to advocate for stricter HVAC regulations in schools, aiming for higher standards to create healthier and sustainable learning environments.
- Promote Green Practices: Encourage the adoption of sustainable building materials and practices that prioritize air quality. This includes using non-toxic paint finishes and materials with low VOC emissions. Opt for environmentally friendly cleaning products in classrooms, which are also low in VOCs.
- Control Humidity Levels: Excessive humidity can foster mould growth and dust mite proliferation, negatively impacting IAQ. Conversely, low humidity levels can facilitate the transmission of airborne viruses. Employ dehumidifiers in areas prone to dampness, such as science labs, bathrooms, and lunchrooms, to maintain optimal humidity levels.
By implementing these strategies, teachers, parents, and school boards can take proactive steps to enhance indoor air quality, providing a healthier and more conducive learning environment for students and educators alike.
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