September 16, 2022

Air Quality Monitoring in Schools and Classrooms

Indoor Air Quality

Before 2020, air quality monitoring wasn’t among many people’s top concerns for schools. Too often, inadequate ventilation and harmful indoor air pollution went unnoticed. The Covid-19 pandemic changed that. Now, indoor air quality is the center of conversation for many parents, teachers, and school administrators who understand the role of clean indoor air in creating healthier learning spaces.

Children spend much of their lives in a school building, breathing in the classroom air, for better or worse. Schools need continuous air quality monitoring to minimize pollutant exposure for occupants effectively. Here, we dig into how air quality monitoring can help school facility managers create safer and healthier environments for students, teachers, and staff.

Read on to learn:

  • Why indoor air quality in schools is so important
  • Indoor air quality challenges unique to schools
  • The benefits of air quality monitoring in schools
  • What to look for in a commercial IAQ monitor

Why is indoor air quality in schools so important?

Indoor air quality in schools can play a role in the health and productivity of students, teachers, and staff. Generally, exposure to excess CO2, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and airborne particulate matter (PM) can lead to health problems, including headaches, aggravated asthma symptoms, allergic reactions, other respiratory illnesses, headaches, nasal congestion, eye and skin irritations, coughing, sneezing, fatigue, dizziness, and nausea.

For students, the potential effects of pollution exposure go even further. Children are especially vulnerable to air pollution, as their bodies are still developing, and they breathe in larger quantities of air relative to their size. Poor air quality, including the presence of environmental asthma and allergy triggers in schools, can also increase student absences, decrease test scores, and impact a child’s attention span and neurodevelopment. 

Asthma is the leading cause of school absenteeism due to chronic illness, and airborne allergens, such as mold, dust mites, and pollen, can play a role in triggering allergy symptoms and asthma attacks.

When you improve air quality in schools, however, you can reap a host of short- and long-term benefits, such as reduced absences, asthma attacks, and flu transmission, improved schoolwork speed and performance, and higher math and reading test scores. Improving classroom ventilation can lower indoor pollutant concentrations, reduce Covid-19 transmission, and decrease the frequency of allergy and asthma symptoms.

Indoor Air Quality Challenges for Schools

Schools have a perfect storm of factors that, if left unchecked, can lead to severely poor indoor air quality in classrooms. Students typically spend long hours indoors, crowded together in small rooms with poor ventilation, while school districts often lack the financial resources to address many air quality concerns. Some of the main obstacles to improving air quality in the classroom include:

Old and Outdated School Buildings

Most school buildings are decades old, built in a time when insulation took priority over ventilation and indoor air quality. With insulation trapping air indoors, carbon dioxide (CO2) and the many chemicals used daily in schools—from art supplies to building materials to cleaning products—can quickly accumulate in the classroom air. Building management systems (BMS) could help school leaders respond to these issues, but smart building technology is still a long way off for most districts.

The Current State of HVAC Systems in Schools

HVAC systems are the primary source of air ventilation and filtration in schools. Unfortunately for many schools across the country, older heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems may not be up to the task. In 2020, the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated that about 36,000 public schools (grades K-12) nationwide needed to update or replace their HVAC systems. 

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, many schools are working to increase ventilation rates in schools. The Biden administration’s National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan even designated funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to help schools upgrade their HVAC systems. However, replacing an outdated ventilation system can be costly, disrupt classes, and take months or longer, keeping many schools from considering it as an option.

High Classroom Occupancy 

The average class size in U.S. public schools ranges from the high teens to almost 40 students, depending on grade level and course structure. When that many students occupy a single room for one or more hours at a time, CO2 levels in classrooms can accumulate to potentially hazardous levels. 

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE)’s indoor air quality standards for schools recommend maintaining indoor CO2 levels below 1,000 parts per million, but CO2 concentrations in schools rarely go under 1,000 ppm, and can get as high as 3,000 to 6,000 ppm.

Infiltration of Outdoor Air Pollution

When outdoor air pollution is bad, indoor air quality suffers too. As school doors and windows open and close throughout the day, airborne pollutants and allergens enter. Once trapped inside, these pollutants can build up to levels up to five times greater than outdoor concentrations. Outdoor air pollution is a significant concern for districts in areas that are prone to wildfires, high levels of traffic, and seasonal pollen. 

Air Testing in Schools Helps Both Students and Teachers

Before spending money on air quality improvements, it’s best to start by using air quality testing or indoor air quality (IAQ) monitors to assess the state of the air in your building and uncover sources of indoor air pollution. Air quality monitors allow you to collect real-time air quality data, so you can focus your budget and efforts on cutting pollution at the source and mitigating any air pollution you can’t control.

For example, if your IAQ monitor alerts you to elevated CO2 in a classroom, you can choose to increase ventilation or reduce the number of students in the room. Elevated particle pollution, on the other hand, may mean you need to upgrade your HVAC filter.

Your school’s air quality can change, depending on the season, time of day, and number of occupants in the building. IAQ monitors give you the data to measure and respond to air quality changes as they happen, so you don’t have to make important (often costly) decisions based on the findings of a single air quality test. Plus, most allow you to publicize your air quality data, which can help ease any worries students, parents, teachers, and staff may have about your school’s IAQ.

Must-Have Functionalities for School Indoor Air Quality Monitors

Different indoor air quality monitors collect data on different types of air pollution and other air quality indicators. For example, the Atmocube indoor environmental monitoring system tracks carbon monoxide (CO), CO2, fine particulate matter (PM1, PM2.5, and PM10), formaldehyde,  relative humidity, temperature, light intensity, and noise levels. As you monitor the air and notice trends in the tracking data, you'll be able to use that information to guide your air quality improvement efforts.

Here are a few other functionalities to look for when choosing an IAQ monitor:

  • Common USB Type-C cable, PoE or direct wiring as a power source. All are available with Atmocube, meaning the facility manager won’t need to wire extra cables to install the device.
  • WiFi capabilities. Atmocube can connect to WiFi to automatically and securely store your school building’s air quality data in the cloud.
  • Internal memory and backup battery. Without these, your air quality data may be compromised during a power outage. Atmocube IAQ monitors have a 3-hour backup battery, and their on-device storage can store up to one week of air quality data (measurements in one-minute intervals). 
  • REST API. If you want to be able to display air quality data on your schools’ website or a public display in common areas, look for an IAQ monitor with REST API, such as Atmocube.
  • BMS integration. Linking your IAQ monitor to your building management system allows you to use demand-controlled ventilation (DCV) to automatically optimize your energy usage based on your air quality needs. 

With a limited school budget, getting the most out of your air quality spending is crucial. By using a real-time air quality monitoring system, you can target your efforts to have the biggest, most efficient impact on minimizing indoor air pollution. Improving indoor air quality isn’t a temporary pandemic-related expense. It’s an investment that will benefit your students and staff for years to come.

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