Now Maskless, What Are Schools Doing in the COVID-19 Era About Clean Indoor Air?

March 30, 2022
Although good ventilation, among other measures, can help protect schoolchildren from COVID-19 and other ills, few schools have upgraded their systems. Above, students at Blazier Intermediate School in Austin, Texas, earlier in March. Photo: U.S. Department of Education, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Now Maskless, What Are Schools Doing in the COVID-19 Era About Clean Indoor Air?

By Joseph A. Davis

With mask mandates in schools largely ended, it’s a good time for environmental reporters to ask if their local school districts are doing all they can to protect the indoor environment … and the health of children.

Good ventilation, for instance, can help protect them from COVID-19 and other ills. But few schools have upgraded their systems.

That’s a shame because the technology is well-known and funding is often available. Indoor air quality can often be improved at schools, colleges, offices and other buildings. And the health benefits of clean indoor air are many.


Why it matters

Indoor air quality is actually a bigger problem than many people understand. COVID-19 itself, for example, is most often transmitted by fine, airborne particles breathed out by infected people and breathed in by not-yet-infected people.

These aerosol particles can be produced when people cough, sneeze, talk or merely breathe — and may float in the air for several hours. This is why we wear masks (which protect both the breather and the breathed-upon). Transmission is way more likely indoors, where air is more often shared.


Whether for political or practical reasons,

indoor air quality is not federally regulated.


Indoor air can actually have other harmful things in it besides COVID-19. Airborne pathogens, including those that cause colds and the flu. A wide range of toxic pollutants, ranging from formaldehyde to lead dust, can also be found in indoor air.


The backstory

Back when the Clean Air Act was written in 1970, outdoor air pollution was the big concern — and that’s what the act regulates. Whether for political or practical reasons, indoor air quality is not federally regulated.

Local and state governments have regulated indoor air via mechanisms like smoking bans. But broader indoor air quality regulation is mostly neglected.

At the same time, many school buildings are quite old. This varies a lot from place to place, but nationally, the average age of a school building is 42 years. Some are quite a bit older. In many cases, the heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC, systems really need a complete overhaul.

Some school buildings still even today lack air conditioning. This may have been bearable before the climate heated up and school years started in August. But many kids will tell you it is a problem today.

The on-again/off-again pattern of school closings and openings during the various surges and stages of the pandemic has made it hard to do big renovations on many schools. Your local district may have plans to upgrade ventilation at some time in the future.


Federal intervention in local schools is, to say the least,

often a touchy subject. Consequently, school ventilation

may be a subject best covered at the local or state level.


Federal intervention in local schools is, to say the least, often a touchy subject. Consequently, school ventilation may be a subject best covered at the local or state level.

Federal money, however, is often welcome. The American Rescue Plan, a massive $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress and signed by President Biden back in March 2021, contained money that could be used to upgrade school ventilation systems. This money is administered through the U.S. Department of Education.

Even more money for this purpose was contained in various versions of the Build Back Better legislation, but that bill seems to be stalled.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently entered this arena with its March 2022 Clean Air in Buildings Challenge. This document is essentially a set of voluntary guidelines and available resources for addressing not only COVID-19 threats but other indoor air issues as well. Find the complete document here.


Story ideas

  • Building age: How old are the school buildings in your area? What is the typical HVAC situation in them?
  • Ventilation systems: Do the ventilation systems in your schools include filtration? What kind of particles are filtered out? How often are the filters cleaned, changed or maintained? Are ventilation ducts cleaned?
  • Other air concerns: Some large buildings' HVAC facilities or plans take account of factors other than health — such as energy costs and climate impacts. How do these affect schools in your area?
  • Upgrades: What plans do schools in your area have for upgrading HVAC systems in the future? When will the work be done, and how long will it take? Is lead paint involved? How will the work be paid for?
  • Other indoor air quality measures: Do schools in your area use indoor air measures other than centralized HVAC to address COVID-19 and other health risks? For instance, portable or single-room air filters? Ultraviolet disinfection? Open windows?


Reporting resources

  • The EPA: Despite lack of regulatory authority, the EPA is loaded with information and advice about indoor air quality, especially as it impacts health. Find resources on ventilation and COVID-19, HVAC systems and ventilation systems and controls.
  • Department of Education: As it administers federal money for school ventilation, the Education Department offers many helpful suggestions and guidelines. Find information, for instance, on improving ventilation in schools.
  • State education agencies: Federal money for COVID-19-related ventilation improvements is channeled through state education agencies. Start with this state contacts list.
  • Local school districts: If you are reporting at the local level, try to find people with information at the district or individual school level.
  • Teachers unions: Teachers care about the health of kids — and have a big stake themselves in a healthful workplace. Often they have accurate information about classroom conditions and strong opinions about workplace safety. Start with the National Education Association.

[Editor’s Note: For more resources on indoor air quality, check our TipSheet on altered office environments, a Toolbox on building materials and a Feature on another deadly respiratory illness, Legionnaires’ Disease. Plus, find news headlines on indoor air from EJToday.]

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 13. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

SEJ Publication Types: