by Patti Dees

Classroom air quality impacts both students and staff and is directly linked to student health and learning outcomes. Yet many schools struggle to provide adequate indoor air quality (IAQ), whether due to a lack of funds or understanding of the issue. 


Impact of Air Quality on Students

Indoor air quality (IAQ) is an indicator of how clean the air in a building is. Allergens, pollutants, and lack of ventilation – air in buildings can harbor particles and organisms that cause health problems in occupants. Humidity and temperature fluctuations impact IAQ by allowing pests or mold to flourish in the building and additionally serve as a distraction to students.

While IAQ in office buildings is known to cause sick building syndrome, the effects for students are more pronounced. Children take in more pollutants per body weight than adults, meaning they are more likely to suffer adverse effects from poor IAQ than adults. Multiple studies have shown that poor classroom air quality contributes to respiratory illnesses, asthma, and headaches. If students are too ill to attend classes, academic performance and quality of life suffer. 


Finding Solutions

Solutions require understanding the general causes of poor classroom air quality and identifying sources for specific spaces. Several factors impact schools, making classroom IAQ more complex and dangerous. 

  • Comparing occupation rates per floor space, schools have four times as many occupants as office buildings. 
  • The ages and health statuses of students and staff cover a much broader range, creating an increased possibility of complications from poor IAQ. 
  • Maintenance and operation budgets are stretched across multiple systems and buildings. 
  • School expansions often rely on portable buildings that were not designed for school use. 
  • Exhaust from buses and nearby traffic easily enters the building through vents, doors, and windows.


These factors are further complicated when cost-saving measures lead to lower ventilation rates and deferred maintenance. 

How to manage classroom air quality depends in part on location and environment. Urban schools surrounded by noise and vehicle exhaust need options besides opening windows, while rural schools may include that as a temporary solution. Similarly, harsh or humid weather impacts which methods are used to manage ventilation needs. Available resources, including financial resources, are different for each location and have a significant impact on solutions. Overall, permanent, low-maintenance, and long-term solutions are most effective.


Taking Action

General solutions for improving IAQ in any building include keeping vents clear, instituting proactive maintenance plans, and installing carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide detectors. Staff and administrators can also take other actions to improve classroom air quality.


Manage Pollution Sources

The best way to avoid exposing children and staff to allergens and pollutants is to eliminate the sources. Examples of steps to manage some of the causes of poor IAQ are: 

  • Policies that prohibit smoking and pets on campus
  • Keeping idling buses away from doors, windows, and vents
  • Using non-toxic cleaning or art supplies
  • Using exhaust fans in restrooms, kitchens, and labs.

It is also important to consider air quality when purchasing furnishings or building materials. Some may contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which release air pollutants.


Control Exposure

Some sources of indoor air pollution are unavoidable, such as certain cleaning supplies or chemicals for a class lab. If a source cannot be eliminated, it is key to limit student and staff exposure. Staff should store such items away from most occupants and use them when the building has the fewest people present. They should also wear appropriate safety gear when necessary.


Provide Adequate Ventilation

Several studies and meta-analyses indicate that one of the largest issues schools face is adequate ventilation. Standards establish ventilation rates that introduce fresher air to mix with polluted air, diluting pollutants. When air is removed from the room, pollutants are also removed. 

Unfortunately, many schools do not meet the minimum ventilation rates required by current standards. Windows and fans may help, but only meet temporary ventilation demands such as a spilled substance releasing fumes or odors. Permanent solutions include assessment, measurements, and equipment to meet ventilation needs.


Clean the Air Used for Ventilation

HVAC systems rely on filters to avoid introducing outdoor pollutants. Filtration only works if filters are properly sized and replaced regularly. Sizing includes physical dimensions as well as MERV rating. Ensuring ducts are sealed and insulated will keep dust out of the ventilation system and reduce moisture, both of which help keep the air clean. 

There are many more options and technologies available to help provide students with cleaner air. Reach out to Therma to discuss your school’s needs and restrictions. Therma professionals have the skills and experience to develop an action plan that works for you, and your students.


Patti draws on her background as a chemical engineer to share information with readers on technology, manufacturing, and construction.


American Lung Association – Clean Air at School | American Lung Association

Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Scientific Findings Resource Bank (IAQ-SFRB) – IAQ in Schools | Indoor Air

The Journalist’s Resource – How indoor air quality in schools affects student learning and health

US Environmental Protection Agency – Reference Guide for Indoor Air Quality in Schools | US EPA