Creating and Sustaining Safe, Healthy School Environments

By Matt Comai

We all know the feeling of walking into a newly cleaned house, or crawling into a freshly made bed. Imagine the rise in staff and student morale if they could start each school day in a clean and healthy room. We owe it to ourselves, our students and our communities to provide the safest and healthiest learning environment possible.

Environmental Wellness
How important is the physical environment in determining how well students learn? The research is limited, and some can be controversial. According to an article in the October 2007 issue of the Journal of School Health, “a child typically spends about 1,300 hours in a school building each year, and teachers and other staff are there even longer than that. In 1998, the average school building was 42 years old, and more than 75 percent of America’s schools were built before 1970." The article goes on to state that, “[a]s society continues to focus on the importance of academic achievement, the school physical environment should be addressed as a critical factor that influences academic outcomes." Faced with ever-tightening budgets and aging facilities, we need to focus on those environmental factors in our schools that we can control to help reduce their effect not only on building maintenance, efficiency and comfort but on staff and student performance as well.

‘Oh, no! Not another initiative,’ you may think. But consider the fact that we already have mandated wellness policies. Why not just incorporate the environment into our current wellness model? School wellness policies typically focus on student nutrition and physical activity. Those that have included the environment in their policy are one step ahead of everyone else.

It’s one thing to have a clean and safe environment for eating a healthy snack, but it is no longer a safe or healthy environment if we’re breaking out a potentially toxic cleaning product to clean up after the healthy snack and delivering a host of potential allergens and asthma triggers into the room before we get back to teaching. Doesn’t the environment impact how well we feel, which, in turn, affects how well we teach and learn? Enhancing the physical environment is as crucial to our health as eating right and exercising.

Avoid Vent Blockage
What are those school environment issues that you can control? The first thing you need to do is evaluate your facility’s heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems and determine whether they are operating at their highest level of efficiency. Rising energy costs continue to force the need for a higher level of efficiency in operations and maintenance.

Locate the radiators in each room and determine if they are physically blocked. Many times, bookshelves and other objects block radiators that run the length of a classroom wall. This can trap heat against walls near inefficient windows that then cool the heated air, causing the heating system to continue trying to provide heat to meet the demand of the thermostat on the other side of the room.

Check unit ventilators for blockage at the bottom (which provides room air intake) and top (which supplies air). Either blockage does not allow the system to operate efficiently. Blocking the supply vent also creates the potential for adding dust or particulate to the supply air, distributing it about the room. This problem arises when what is stacked on the unit ventilator—usually loose and unbound paper—breaks down continuously and releases particles into the air.

Eliminate Particulate Load
The second issue that needs to be addressed is the particulate load in your building. This can be determined with a visual inspection of those areas not regularly cleaned such as stacks of paper, books and boxes stored for various curriculum topics. A heavy layer of settled dust reveals a high particulate load.

The particulate load in a building is constantly challenged when there is a heavy amount of foot traffic in and out of the building each day. Consider taking the following actions to reduce particulate load in your building.

Focus on your building’s entrances. Are there walk-off mats outside and inside the building? Are they adequate for the amount of traffic you incur? Large rubber mats with small rubber “fingers" that work the dirt out of shoe treads that are located outside of the entrances are highly effective in removing large amounts of particulate that would otherwise enter the building. Mats inside the building continue to collect residual particulate as occupants enter it. That’s why “Stomp Days" are imperative. These are days in the winter and spring and on wet rainy days when students should be stomping their feet as they walk from the buses to the school to get most of the particulate off their shoes. Your school’s wellness committee could encourage this as a physical activity that’s part of your wellness program.

Inspect your classrooms. There is frequently a lack of space in them, especially at the elementary level. That’s because many teachers in the elementary setting have the students in one classroom most of the school day and provide instruction in a number of different subjects. This creates the need to keep and store a great deal of educational materials for each subject matter. Adequate closets and ample storage space are not common features in classroom design. This leads to piles of materials stacked on top of one another plus overloaded shelving units and a great deal of loose, unbound paper. These stacks and piles create a large surface area for settled dust and, because the materials are only accessed occasionally, they are also a potential asthma trigger for at-risk students and staff when the materials are disturbed. Additionally, this stored material is a considerable fire and injury hazard. Much stored material observed in elementary schools is placed above the space reserved for student coats, bags and other belongings. This placement increases the risk of a head injury. In 1997, for example, a student in Shelburne, Vermont died from a head injury caused by an object that fell off a shelf.

Take the time to keep personal items and areas clean. For example, launder pillows, wash throw carpets and wet wipe surfaces. This is important to help reduce the buildup of particulates since custodial services do not address these areas of the classroom. In providing classroom inspections, we often observe materials that no longer serve a classroom purpose and simply take up valuable storage space. These items should be removed to create viable space for useful materials.

Evaluate stuffed furniture in your school, which can be significant contributors of pollutants to the indoor environment. Many couches, chairs or futons in schools were donated by someone. Did the furniture come from a home where people smoked, had pets, or both? Or was it originally marked “free" and picked up the side of a road? These items are fire hazards as they can create heavy smoke and toxic fumes if inflamed. It’s best to simply remove these items from the classroom and/or lounge areas.

Clutter and Chemicals
Many classrooms have their ambiance overpowered by clutter. Consider your classroom space and ask the following questions:

  • How does my classroom clutter affect the students’ ability to focus?
  • Does it trigger personal stress when I enter the classroom?
  • What steps can be taken to prevent the clutter from taking over the room?
  • How do we create good examples for our students to understand the relationship between their environment and their performance?
  • How does my classroom’s state reflect the overall maintenance of our school building as an asset to the community?

Regarding chemicals used in the classroom, carefully consider what is necessary and what should be allowed. Random classroom inspections reveal a wide range of household cleaning products, along with custodial cleaning supplies. Pesticides have also been observed and, many times, their use is to combat insects attracted by abandoned foodstuffs found in the classrooms. Most of these products are labeled “Keep out of reach of children," yet we find them well within the reach of most students.

All schools should have a tightly controlled chemical inventory of cleaning products provided by the district for use in the classroom. There must be a Material Safety Data Sheet available for every chemical used in the building. The use of all chemicals should be evaluated with only approved products made available to staff.

A great deal needs to be done in order to create and sustain a healthy school environment. By taking responsibility for our personal workspace—and promoting good housekeeping among staff and students—we can start to improve our learning environments almost immediately. Consider creating a healthy environment team to periodically inspect rooms and offer solutions to staff. Or initiate an “Extreme Classroom Makeover" competition to improve the look and feel of your work space.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Tools for Schools program can help you to reduce exposures to indoor environmental contaminants in schools through the voluntary adoption of sound indoor air quality management practices. A link to the program, plus other facility management and healthy school environment resources, are posted on the “School Risk Management and Safety Training" page of New Hampshire Local Government Center’s Web site at www.nhlgc.org. Just click on our home page’s “Training and Consulting" menu bar and then on “Risk and Health Management Training."

Matt Comai is a School Risk Management Representative of New Hampshire Local Government Center.