The pandemic has taken a toll on all aspects of our lives, be it economical or social. Though most sectors of the economy are on “un-lockdown”, opening up of our educational sector is a difficult decision as it involves children who can be very vulnerable. Our educational institutions should be safe, welcoming places for students to learn, teachers to teach and staff to work. But schools are susceptible to infection transmissions via aerosols. Some reports already show how SARS-CoV2 can spread within educational facilities and be deadly to school staff, particularly those who have comorbidities. There is also a risk that children may carry the virus home to their parents or grandparents, who may also have comorbidities.
Educational institutions should look at the quality of air in schools in a holistic manner, and not merely through the narrow lens of the current pandemic. Poor indoor air quality (IAQ) can not only reduce the performance and lead to poor health outcomes for children and staff but also become environments for viruses and illnesses to spread.
Students spend most of their time in the school near one another, increasing the risk of airborne infections. Poor ventilation in many schools, especially those with air conditioning, can result in the persistence of contaminants not only in the form of pathogens but also from cleaning products, furnishing and building materials.
Also, children require adequate volumes of air for their growth, development and physical activity. If classrooms are overcrowded and proper ventilation is not provided, it increases the content of CO2 and bio-contaminants in the air impacting students’ performance and health.
So, what can schools do to improve air quality in their buildings? The best approach would be to look at countermeasures for pollutants that the school might be exposed to.
The following tips will help in maintaining higher indoor air quality in educational institutions:
- Use natural ventilation (open windows and doors) as much as possible.
- However, if a school is located near busy roads, there would be higher chances of NOx and particulate matter (PM) pollution. Presence of NOx and PM can cause cardiopulmonary effects in children. In such cases, mechanical filtration devices will be required to introduce fresh air in the classrooms.
- Schools with classrooms having closed windows and doors need to pay special attention to adequate ventilation, especially when using air conditioning units without provision for fresh air, e.g. split AC units. In such cases, there are options for decentralised as well as centralised fresh air systems.
- Odours and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted from synthetic auxiliary materials like paints, cleaning products like phenyl etc. Continuous exposure to such chemicals is detrimental to one’s health. Adequate ventilation and/or air filtration systems capable of removing such chemicals by using carbon filters should be adopted.
- In certain seasons, dampness, mould and airborne fungi can arise from improper building design or maintenance or leaking pipes or improper air conditioning systems. It would help to have air conditioning systems that filter such contaminants.
- Seasonal airborne diseases like influenza or pandemics like COVID19 present a real challenge in containing its spread among the students and staff. In such cases, germicidal devices with UV light can be used along with surface disinfection methods regularly. However, for real-time protection, air sterilisation technology is useful as they provide purified and sterilised air that is safe to breathe.
- Special attention needs to be paid to aerosol generation in the toilets as they can be the cause of the spread of airborne microbes. The proper exhaust of the contaminated air from toilets will ensure that such a spread is contained.
- If the school provides transportation to the students, it would be best to avoid using air-conditioned vehicles and to open out the windows of the vehicle.
- New school buildings should be planned to have open corridors for the ease of natural entry of fresh air and the exhaust of stale air.
- Awareness among students, teachers and staff about maintaining high levels of hygiene is most important during COVID19. It would include the compulsory use of masks, not crowding in unventilated spaces, maintaining the required distance from others and special attention to hand hygiene.
A contaminated indoor space puts scholars and staff at risk of potential short- and long-term health consequences. These include coughs, headaches, allergies, viral infections, the onset of respiratory diseases, asthma attacks and allergies, weakened immune systems, eye irritation, poor concentration, cognitive development, and academic performance or absenteeism. Therefore, a focus on improving air quality in our educational institutions will help us build a healthy future for our children.
Madhusudhan Rao is the Founder & MD of Oorja Cleantech LLP, a pioneer in providing cleantech solutions that significantly lower energy use in the buildings and maintaining a high quality of indoor air.
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