Nebraska research team confirms that poor air quality affects academic outcomes.
Nebraska’s Josephine Lau and colleagues decided to investigate whether certain air quality and ventilation measures in classrooms affect student achievement. The team studied these factors over a two-year span, analyzing the survey data of 216 classrooms from 39 Midwest schools. The researchers discovered there was, in fact, a link between the type of ventilation system installed and student performance on year-end math and reading tests.
Air quality and performance have been a long-standing point of concern, and past studies have suggested that each year “more than 50 million K-12 students spend upward of 1,000 hours in U.S. classrooms.” A 2004 paper by Glen Earthman, a school facility planner and former director of the Educational Resource Information Center (ERIC), collected the findings from empirical studies from the 1970s until the early 2000s to rank “31 criteria in terms of their effect on school building adequacy.” Dr. Earthman found “significant evidence that indoor air quality is one of the most important factors in student learning.”
In another study, a poll of Chicago teachers revealed “25% said respiratory problems, including asthma, are the most encountered problems relating to school facility quality. Another 16% reported problems that are often caused by poor indoor air quality (IAQ), such as sinus infections.” This negative impact on health is far-reaching.
Other research in North Carolina examining the relationship between performance outcomes and absenteeism due to poor air quality suggested, “22% of absences in a study of North Carolina schools were caused by respiratory illnesses such as asthma and allergies. In a review of 11 studies, 7 of them found an inverse correlation between absence rate and school performance. That is, a student’s performance is usually poorer as the student’s absence rate increases.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has indicated that building issues impact performance outcomes. The agency suggests, “These can trigger a host of health problems, including asthma and allergies, that increase absenteeism and reduce academic performance. Research links key environmental factors to health outcomes and students’ ability to perform. Improvements in school environmental quality can enhance academic performance, as well as teacher and staff productivity and retention.”
The current study analyzed the effects of a room’s ventilation amid the coronavirus pandemic, and the team surmised that concentration issues and illness-related absences may have affected the results. The team found, even when controlling for other variables, students in classrooms with a single-zone unit attached to an external wall generally performed worse in math and reading when compared to schools with centralized systems connected to multiple classrooms. The single-zone units circulate indoor air while the multi-zone systems pull air from outside.
The multi-zone systems have been shown to provide more outdoor air rather than simply circulated air indoors. They remove larger proportions of particulates and run more quietly than single-zone units. The team found faster ventilation, in particular, corresponded with higher reading scores, and stressed that school districts should consider the results of air quality research when selecting these systems in order to maintain high performance results and minimize student and staff absenteeism.