A growing body of research is showing that the built environment has a significant impact on student health, wellbeing, and performance—for better or for worse. School district facilities leaders can play an invaluable role in harnessing this data to address gaps in current building features, operations, and new construction.

At the K12 Facilities Forum, Anisa Heming, Director, Center for Green Schools at the US Green Building Council and Eric Bower, National Director of Institutional Markets at Forbo, led an insightful discussion on the latest building trends and how facilities administrators can create the healthiest learning environments possible for students and staff.

The Current State of Affairs

Bower kicked off the discussion by taking inventory of the current circumstances of our nation’s schools. From 1995-2007, he shared that the U.S. experienced the “Bond Era” as the country expended nearly $550 billion for new public school construction. However, fast forward to 2019, and there are still an astounding 88,000 existing schools that were built in the 1950s and 60s. This translates to a big opportunity to address deferred maintenance, renovations, and new construction.

“What drives innovation is market demand,” Bower said.” At first, there was this perception that you had to spend a lot more money to build green. We’re edging out of that initial incubation period because more manufacturers are getting in the game to provide more for less. It’s an exciting time because there is an influx of more sustainable products at affordable prices.”

This market demand is partially driven by the not-so-flattering body of research coming out about our schools. According to the EPA, it’s likely that 50% of America’s 53 million students may be exposed to polluted indoor air, lead, asbestos, chemical fumes, pesticides, mold, and other toxins.

“We’ve learned you can’t separate environment and health, there’s no way around it,” Bower said. “At Forbo, we’ve recognized the importance of the materials we use. We removed phthalates (known endocrine disruptors) from PVC, and are working to figure out how to remove PVC altogether.”

What Makes A Healthy Learning Environment?

Heming echoed Bower’s statement about the undeniable link between our health and facilities. Her work in the sustainability world began ten years ago when she was hired by the USGBC to rebuild schools after Hurricane Katrina. Heming shared that there are three aspects of health that a learning environment impacts, first framed by a team at Harvard’s School of Public Health:

  • Feeling well: biological and physical health
  • Thinking well: short-term cognitive effects
  • Performing well: long-term academic success and achievement

Green schools are about more than just bricks and mortar. Operations and policies play a huge role in the health and wellness of staff and students. With that multifaceted definition in mind, Heming shared four types of action that school districts can take to create healthy learning spaces.

  • Healthy indoor environment: eliminate toxins, manage chemical use and disposal, improve air quality, improve lighting quality, improve water quality
  • Physical activity: building environments that encourage physical activity
  • Exposure to nature: connection to the outdoors, environmental educational tools
  • Nutrition: nutrition education tools

According to Heming, facilities leaders can’t afford to wait to take action. She shared telling data to emphasize the gravity of the situation.

Consequences Of Unhealthy Learning Spaces

  • Poor IAQ: asthma, allergies, sick building syndrome, cough episodes, eczema, increased risk of student absenteeism, impaired attention span, decreased decision-making abilities, fatigue, poor academic performance.
  • Uncomfortable classroom temperature: tiredness, difficulty breathing, headaches, eyes, nose, and throat symptoms, upper respiratory symptoms, difficulty concentrating.
  • Noisy classrooms: irritability, stress, high blood pressure, emotional and conduct problems, increased hyperactivity, impaired listening comprehension.

On the other hand, research is also proving the positive benefits on health and wellbeing; in other words, the ability for buildings to improve health rather than take a neutral stance. For instance, full-spectrum light like daylight is linked to reduced daytime sleepiness, improved alertness, faster reading speed, and increased oral reading fluency performance. Students with exposure to views of the outdoors also show a faster recovery from stress and mental fatigue as well as better attention spans.

Emerging Research From The EPA

Three years ago, the EPA awarded seven teams of university scientists a research grant to study health in the learning environment. Findings from this research are now emerging, and the Center for Green Schools is collaborating with the scientists to translate this data into an actionable guide for schools. Heming shared a few standout results from the studies, though she shared that there is much more to come.

“What scientists have found is that our schools are not doing well when it comes to keeping up with CO2 levels. Studies showed half or fewer of all classrooms had CO2 measurements above recommended levels,” Heming said.

Research also reveals that there is a significant increase in asthma incidences near high-traffic highways and airport, which makes school siting critical. It’s no shocker that school siting can have a huge impact on noise levels, but researchers were surprised that iPad charging stations were found to be the biggest source of noise in one study. Sources of VOCs were also unexpected, as one study found elevated VOCs only in classrooms with air fresheners and scented candles.

“The studies also found that VOCs and formaldehyde exposure is dependent on air circulation, which means the ventilation makes a huge impact on exposure levels. It’s so important for facilities leaders to ensure that filtration is working properly,” she said.

Translating Data Into Action

Heming shared that facilities leaders have an invaluable role to play when it comes to the future of healthy learning spaces, and must “Act, Communicate, and Advocate” for their districts.

She wrapped with 13 insights for facilities leaders to take back to their schools...

  • Implement design and construction standards that demand material transparency and limit VOC content.
  • Create standards that promote daylight and views to the outdoors.
  • Write an indoor air quality management plan and train staff on their responsibilities.
  • Create policies to limit applications of pesticides and cleaning materials that contain toxins.
  • Focus on high-impact preventative maintenance practices, like filter replacement.
  • Monitor CO2 as a signal for upcoming problems.
  • Encourage feedback from classrooms about environmental conditions: What you don’t know CAN hurt you.
  • Train staff on strategies to promote healthy learning environments.
  • Encourage teachers and custodians to get their “Green Classroom Professional Certificate”
  • Utilize current research to advocate for the resources to do the job the right way.
  • Connect FCI data and building improvements to the district’s absenteeism and academic performance data to make your case.
  • Support local advocates’ efforts to gain federal, state, and local resources for school health.
Hannah Chenoweth

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Hannah Chenoweth is a writer for influence group. Passionate about collaborating with thought leaders in real estate, design, construction & facilities management.

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