Protecting health and acting sustainably during school reopening

Published on: 
9 Jul 2020
Phoebe Beierle

The novel coronavirus has disrupted business as usual across the globe, and the disruption of the K–12 education system is having ripple effects throughout the economy. In mid-March, school buildings were abandoned abruptly, as staff and students were required to remain at home and transition to a virtual teaching and learning environment. As school systems consider how to reopen for in-person instruction, leaders are turning their focus to the physical building, especially the health of the indoor environment.

Organizations studying SARS-CoV-2 and providing guidance on how to manage the disease, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and ASHRAE, all agree that ensuring ventilation systems are operating properly, increasing circulation of outdoor air and improving filtration are important in reducing the risk of the virus spreading in buildings. Additionally, schools are working to develop plans that meet U.S. EPA and CDC guidance for cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, including high-touch places within the building, on buses, on playgrounds and more.

Air quality and the need for healthy green operational policies and procedures in schools has never been more important. As USGBC’s President and CEO, Mahesh Ramanujam, states in his new vision announcement, “Unlike any other moment in [our history], this crisis will require us to fully reimagine the spaces where we live, learn, work and play.”

USGBC has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with guidance for building designers and operators through the new “Safety First” pilot credits in LEED and additional items on the COVID-19 resources page. The new program in Arc, Arc for Reentry, also gives building operators a communication tool to use with occupants as schools and businesses reopen.

Center for Green Schools actions to support schools

Because of USGBC’s history in working with schools for the past two decades, the Center for Green Schools knows that the health of students and teachers is a stated priority of nearly every school system, and we also know how health and sustainability can often be a second thought when an institution is making decisions in a crisis. Knowing the hard choices and nationwide confusion that was likely on the horizon, we started reaching out early to leading organizations that are working on indoor air quality (IAQ) guidance for schools, as well as the 200+ members of our School District Sustainability Leadership Network (SLN), many of whom are responsible for their district’s energy management, waste management and healthy school programs.

National guidance for school facilities and health

In early May, the Center for Green Schools began a biweekly, informal email update to school health organizations and researchers, sharing what we had heard about guidance in development related to school facilities and health. As resources become available and finalized, our plan is to add them to USGBC’s COVID-19 resource page. Currently, we are aware of K–12-focused initiatives, led by a federal agency, the Healthy Schools Campaign, the 21st Century School Fund and the National Council on School Facilities, Perkins + Will, the Healthy Schools Network, the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, and the National Academies of Science. If you would like to receive email updates about the progress of this guidance, please request to be added.

School district leaders survey

In early April, we surveyed members of the SLN, primarily from medium and large districts across the U.S., to understand their response to COVID-19 and their top concerns about how the pandemic would impact their work. The survey was sent to approximately 235 individuals representing 165 schools or school districts. Of those, 43 complete responses were submitted, representing 36 school districts, 5847 schools and over 3.5 million students.

Community conversations about COVID-19

At the close of the survey, respondents told us that they were interested in hearing from experts to share best practices in sustainability and health, as well as “support group” calls to talk about the challenges they were facing. In response, we organized 12 different "COVID Community Conversations," on topics ranging from school gardens to green cleaning and energy management. Fifty school sustainability staff members participated, many joining multiple calls.

What we’ve heard from schools

In the Center's interviews and conversations with school districts around the country, these are the major challenges we have heard regarding indoor air quality and green cleaning:

Lack of direction

At every level—federal, state and local—people are looking for guidance on what to expect in the coming months and how to proceed with school reopening. Since scientists are still working to understand exactly how to live with the virus safely, and budgeting is delayed, decision makers have been hesitant to establish firm plans until they know more. School district staff told us it is very challenging to proactively plan and advocate for best practices with so much unknown.

Efficacy of products and technologies

Facilities departments are seeing an increase in sales pitches for air cleaning and purification systems, filtration mediums, new cleaning products and more. Without expertise or school-based case studies for all of these products and technologies, it is difficult for facilities staff to navigate what will work and where, and what they should get in line quickly to purchase.

Critically limited resources

Organizations like ASHRAE are suggesting schools commission HVAC systems, upgrade to better filtration (MERV 13 or higher or HEPA) and clean more frequently, with more robust disinfection systems. Many of these recommendations are a best practice in normal conditions, but have not been implemented in schools due to lack of funding or staff capacity. Now, in a climate of budget deficits at the state and local level, schools are scrambling to respond to meet these healthy school guidelines with even less money than they had before.

Conflicting guidance

School district staff told us that in their view, the guidance that is coming from some states and localities conflicts with science or needs to be applied with regional climate considerations in mind. For example, the recommendation for increasing the relative humidity in the school to 40–60%, which is just not feasible in a climate like Colorado's, for example, according to school district staff we spoke with.

Additionally, much of the guidance is not considering districts’ sustainability goals for green cleaning, reducing waste from packaging and using less energy. Most school reopening guidance is pointing to students eating meals in the classroom, which has for years been a challenge for sustainability staff, who advocate for greener waste management, pest management and cleaning practices. Staff noted a need for integrated guidance that considers reducing virus transmission, along with sustainability practices and local climates.

Getting building occupants on board

Many sustainability and environmental health staff have always advocated for keeping clutter to a minimum and avoid eating in the classroom as a way to prevent pests and dust and to promote good IAQ. While there may be an increased focus at this time on requiring building occupants to clean up and declutter their spaces to make it easier to keep the school clean, getting people to change habits in the long term is hard. Sustainability staff raised concerns, based on their past experience, about all that is being asked of building occupants.

Moving forward safely

At the Center for Green Schools, we know that, collectively, we must act urgently to ensure that schools and school districts have as much information as possible about how to keep students and teachers safe, and ideally, the resources to implement necessary precautions. We know that specific aspects of indoor air quality—such as the amount of CO2, VOCs, particulates and humidity in the air—have demonstrable impacts on student learning, and on human health more generally.

We are working with partners to advocate in Congress for short-term federal funding for schools to support safe reopening, as well as long-term funding for school facilities construction and renovation. Contact us to get involved.

For decades, USGBC has been advocating for healthy indoor environmental practices as part of the LEED rating system, Green Classroom Professional Certificate and our public policy advocacy to call attention to the need to adequately and equitably fund school construction and maintenance. As students and teachers head back into school buildings over the coming school year, never has more been asked of the buildings themselves and of the people who operate them. The challenges are steep, and to meet them will require all of the resources, creativity and assistance possible—our families, communities and economy depend on it.

View USGBC's COVID-19 resources page