As the utterly bizarre 2020-2021 academic school year creeps to an end, students, parents, schools and health officials across the country are already looking toward next fall and how all classrooms can reopen while keeping everyone healthy and safe.
And a sweeping new report from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health is calling on K-12 school administrators to urgently invest in ways to improve building ventilation to reduce the spread of COVID-19 — and to boost student performance overall.
Because while millions of tweens and teens will already be vaccinated, and younger children are next in line, schools will still have to lean heavily on preventive measures to curb the spread of the virus.
“Air purifiers are a good investment. They will help to make classrooms safer because COVID and flu and other pathogens are transmitted through the air, and having poorly circulated air increases the likelihood that these pathogens are sitting around,” Gigi Gronvall, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an author on the new report, told HuffPost.
Groups like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have urged schools to improve ventilation for much of the year, telling them to open windows and doors to increase the delivery of clean air. And in major school districts, like New York City, schools have complied — often while students and teachers shivered and wore layers to protect themselves from the cold.
But schools across the country have a real opportunity to do something about it right now, the new report argues. They can use flexible funds from the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan to improve ventilation, bringing in as much outdoor air as their heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems safely allow while also upgrading filtration as necessary.
School districts should also place HEPA air filtration units in classrooms and common occupied spaces — even if they already meet current building standards, as the filters can provide additional protection against the transmission of COVID-19. Opening windows can help, but it’s not enough.
“Cracking the windows is one thing, but opening the windows does not move air through,” Gronvall said.
And, the report states, schools should stop wasting their time on what has sometimes been called “hygiene theater.”
Routine cleaning of high-touch surfaces is still recommended by the CDC, but schools should stop so-called “deep clean” days, or any other expensive and disruptive cleaning. It just doesn’t work that well.
“Some schools put way too much emphasis on cleaning,” Gronvall said. “Cleaning is, of course, important … but that’s not how COVID is transmitted. The air is the thing.”
Of course, improving airflow in classrooms does not mean that students will be able to stop masking next fall, and schools will need to continue to follow whatever the current public health guidelines are at the time. The CDC has said that masks should be worn at least through this academic year, although it’s not yet clear what will happen next year. Hand-washing and social distancing are also likely to remain very important preventive measures.
But the potential benefits of improving ventilation in classrooms goes beyond just keeping transmission rates low in schools next fall. The report’s authors cite prior research suggesting that improved ventilation boosts student performance by anywhere from 2% to more than 15%.
“Even before COVID, indoor air quality was a problem in schools across the country. And you think, ‘Well yeah, it’s stuffy. That’s not great.’ But in fact it has been shown that unhealthy, not well-ventilated air has a detrimental effect on student learning,” said Gronvall. “We tolerate this for some reason … but it’s always going to be important to have healthy air in schools.”
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.