Creating a Healthy School Environment: It’s Elementary

By Matt Comai

For staff and students at the Lamprey River Elementary School, the past two years have proven that change is possible. The kindergarten through grade five school in Raymond is one of two pilot schools in New Hampshire (the other is the Mildred Lakeway Elementary School in Littleton) provided a Healthy Schools Grant by the New Hampshire Partners for Healthy Schools (NHPHS) to improve both indoor air quality and the environment. One result of their program participation was being selected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to receive its 2009 Tools for Schools Leadership Award.

Bringing People Together

Funded primarily by an EPA Healthy Communities Grant, the NHPHS is a project created by a subcommittee of the New Hampshire Asthma Control Program. The Asthma Control Program, a division of the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, is both active and successful in bringing people together to share information, resources and ideas to promote asthma education, prevention and treatment statewide. Its efforts enhance the level of outreach for many health and safety related issues by creating networking opportunities that bring stakeholders together to deliver programs, training and resources to those in need through collaborative efforts.

The NHPHS is comprised of 10 state agencies and nonprofit organizations that pool resources, information, and expertise to provide a mentoring program to schools interested in improving their indoor environments using the framework of the EPA’s Tools for Schools program. The program has proven to be the single best solution for schools seeking to improve their indoor environments through no-cost/low-cost solutions. The New England states have some of the highest asthma rates in the country. In a July 3, 2009 “My Turn” column for the Concord Monitor newspaper, Denise Brewitt, executive director of the Council for Children and Adolescents with Chronic Health Conditions and an NHPHS program partner, noted the following:

“Half of our country’s 115,000 schools have problems linked to indoor air quality, according to the EPA. Many of these buildings are old or poorly maintained, exposing students to a variety of hazards including dust, mold and toxic chemicals. With nearly 55 million people spending their days inside elementary and secondary schools, unsatisfactory indoor air quality in schools is a significant public health concern. Exposure to allergens and respiratory irritants in indoor environments can cause severe allergic or asthmatic reactions. And poor environmental conditions in schools can inhibit learning and lower staff productivity. Children are especially susceptible to indoor air pollution because of their lower body weights and fast breathing rates (which means they receive a higher pollutant dose per body weight than adults), and the fact that their breathing zones are much closer to the ground than those of adults, making them more susceptible to heavier airborne chemicals and settled dust. A survey by the National Association of School Nurses found that asthma is more disruptive of school routines than any other chronic condition. And childhood asthma rates in New Hampshire are among the highest in the nation.”

Risk Management Evaluation

In 2006, the Raymond School District’s (SAU #33) active Joint Loss Management Committee learned of the NHPHS grant from the New Hampshire Local Government Center’s school risk management representative. The committee had recently conducted a district-wide, risk management evaluation which revealed a number of issues related to occupant health and safety.

Building inspections were conducted as part of the committee’s responsibility to comply with state Department of Labor rules. The committee was motivated to address Lamprey River Elementary School issues in the resulting report.

The NHPHS Grant Program seemed a perfect fit for Lamprey River Elementary School as a way to make further improvements in its building by addressing day-to-day operation and maintenance issues related to various occupants of the building. The school was selected for the NHPHS grant through a simple application process.

In addition to the results of its risk management evaluation, the school had a history of air quality and building issues, some of which were attributed to the flooding of the Lamprey River in 1977 and, more recently in 2005 and 2007, as well as consistent complaints from staff and students regarding the poor quality of the indoor environment.

Implementing the Program

When the Tools for Schools program was initiated, the school had just installed a new ventilation system as part of its capital improvement plan. This proved helpful in filtering airborne contaminants and providing more fresh air to school occupants. Additionally, the once ‘open concept’ school underwent a renovation that closed the building into individual classrooms. Carpet replacement was also scheduled to phase in over the next two years. But, was this enough?

After a school team assembled that included Principal Dan Legallo, Assistant Principal Lisa Desruisseaux, Nurse Molly Schlangen, Facility Manager Todd LeDoux plus several teachers, aides and parents, the NHPHS Program Partners provided a program orientation, a Building Management and Asthma Management Issues training, and walk-through training to prepare team members for a hands-on evaluation. A staff meeting was also held to inform the employees of the program and what they could expect from it. Additionally, staff comfort surveys were distributed, and issues related to health and comforts were mapped to visualize those areas of the building that seemed to have consistent issues based on those results.

The school nurse provided data on absenteeism, student/staff visits to the nurse and the use of asthma medications. Each staff member was also provided with their own checklist to perform a self-evaluation of their workspace. This information was also mapped and included in final documentation.

Following these self-evaluations, the team met to organize information obtained in the walk-through process and surveys. Their goal was to set some priorities and develop a work plan to address the issues identified. The work plan was separated into two itemization categories: Facility Management and Building Management. The team’s overall aim was to implement no-cost/low cost solutions provided through the identification of issues with grant resources plus NHPHS expertise and recommendations.

Work Plan Items

One item included in the Facility Management piece of the work plan, led by Facility Manager Ledoux, included the purchase of several new High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filtering vacuum cleaners. This could reduce the amount of smaller particulate that typically escape from traditional vacuum cleaners. Another item was the purchase of additional walk-off mats for highly traveled areas of the building to reduce building penetration of salt, sand and other contaminants that normally come off the shoes of the 600-plus people entering the school daily.

Additionally, cleaning methods were enhanced through the purchase of microfiber cleaning tools provided to custodial and other staff. A change-over to green cleaning products had already begun, and the grant provided funds for an evaluation of current district supplies plus a report and recommendations to make the change-over complete.

Other items addressed through the Facility Management piece were the caulking of window systems, repair of door thresholds and jambs, and renovation of sinks in individual classrooms.

The Building Management piece was lead by Principal Legallo. As building manager, his job was a bit more difficult. Rather than purchase tools to address the building management issues, he had to address behavioral issues. This was a daunting task for the committee because changing behavior takes time, consistency and is not as easy as simply using a more efficient vacuum cleaner. Many of the action items on this list would need to be monitored and dealt with consistently in order to develop and sustain an attitude focused on maintaining improvements made to the environment.

A good way to address building management issues is to gain the support of the entire population of a school building. One idea to help the custodians was to have a 30-second drill before the end of each day. This drill has all staff and students picking up all large trash on floors, putting trash cans by the door, putting chairs up on desks (or stacking them in corners) and cleaning up and properly storing food items.

Regular Stomp Days

Walk-off mats are a great way to keep pollutants out of the building but “Stomp Days” are now a regular occurrence at Lamprey River Elementary School. Stomp Days are when students are asked to stomp their feet from the buses until they get off the walk-off mats. This saves time for the custodian who does not now have to spend the next half hour to 45 minutes cleaning 100 feet of hallway. It also significantly reduces the amount of dust, dirt and other pollutants that enter the building each day.

Another important part of the work plan’s Building Management piece was addressing sources of indoor environmental pollution created by stuffed furniture and animals, live animals, food storage, cleaning supplies, plants and practices that inhibit the ability of HVAC systems to operate efficiently. The set up of classrooms was evaluated. New rules for configuring a classroom were developed to ensure heating/air flow units weren’t blocked, staff personal items are kept to a minimum and chemicals, plus unauthorized foodstuffs and other pollutants, were removed. Storage totes for teachers were purchased with grant money to create flat surfaces that can be cleaned more effectively, and to contain loose and flaking paper, which can be a significant contributor to the particulate load in a school building.

A New Face

Lamprey River Elementary School now has a new face. This past summer, its remaining carpet was installed plus some new cabinets. Principal Legallo spent time with staff reviewing and assisting with implementation of new classroom set-up guidelines, and Facility Manager Ledoux continued his dedication to bringing new operations and maintenance activities to all three schools in SAU #33.

This past school year, regular positive comments were made by parents and visitors alike who noticed the building facelift created by Lamprey River Elementary School’s work plan implementation. Lamprey River Elementary School received an additional $1,500 in-kind grant from New Hampshire Local Government Center for participating in the Tools for Schools program.

The school’s plan now is to sustain these efforts so that it may continue to shine as a positive, safe, and healthy learning environment for the children of Raymond. Hats off to Lamprey River Elementary School staff who, through sound education, embraced the changes asked of them and can now appreciate the results of their collective efforts.

Matt Comai, a School Risk Management Representative of New Hampshire Local Government Center, served as a New Hampshire Partners for Healthy Schools mentor for Lamprey River Elementary School. He can be reached by calling 800.852.3358, ext. 251, or e-mailing