The quality of spaces where students learn matters – especially considering that children and adolescents spend an average of 6 hours per day in school. Collectively, the air, water, lighting and sound in indoor spaces comprise what is called indoor environmental quality (IEQ).
While not often thought of as a significant factor, poor IEQ has been linked to a variety of negative outcomes in students, from headaches, dizziness and wheezing to absenteeism, difficulty concentrating and poor test performance. It can also affect teachers and staff, leading to the same health symptoms as well as lowering job satisfaction and increasing turnover.
Students’ performance can be affected by several IEQ components, including air quality, temperature and noise. A study in Michigan found that schools located in areas with greatest air pollution levels had the highest proportion of students failing to meet state educational testing standards (indoor air quality (IAQ) is significantly influenced by outdoor air quality due to the infiltration of air from outdoors). In addition, higher carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in classrooms have been linked to poorer concentration and cognitive performance. Temperature is another critical factor, with studies consistently showing that children tend to prefer cooler environments and are particularly vulnerable to the effects of higher temperatures, which in turn can impact their school performance. In fact, a study of 75,000 high school students in New York City found that students were 12.3% more likely to fail an exam on a 90°F (32°C) day versus a 75°F (24°C) day. Finally, noise has been associated with difficulty performing cognitive tasks, decreased attention, and impaired performance on literacy, numeracy and speed tests.
2. Decreased Student Learning and Memory
Suboptimal IEQ can negatively impact student learning and memory. Water pipes are often made from lead, which can leach into water if the pipes are corroded. Even low levels of lead exposure have been linked to behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity. Despite the severity of these effects, less than half of the States have school drinking water lead testing programs. And while the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires schools participating in the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program to make free drinking water available to students during meal service, many schools still lack readily available, clean drinking water. Lack of access to free drinking water can lead to dehydration. Being even mildly dehydrated (1-2% loss of body water) can impair performance in tasks that require attention and immediate memory skills.
3. Interrupted Sleep
Light affects many functions of our body, including the sleep-wake cycle, alertness, mood, cognitive performance and even our metabolism, which, in turn, impact our health, well-being and performance. The lighting that students are exposed to during the school day can affect their sleep at night. In fact, around ⅓ of school-aged children (36.4% of 6- to 12-year-olds, and 31.9% of 13- to 17-year-olds) don’t get enough sleep. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children who regularly get the recommended amount of sleep are more likely to have better learning and behavior outcomes, better mental and physical health as well as better quality of life. Furthermore, inappropriate lighting can impede napping, a regular school day practice for younger children that benefits their learning, attention and emotion regulation development.
4. Student and Staff Illness
Poor IEQ can affect outcomes beyond just performance and sleep quality in students. When indoor environmental quality in schools is poor, notably IAQ, it can lead to a range of health symptoms and conditions in both students and staff. It is also associated with more sick days taken by teachers and more school days missed by students.
Poor Air Quality Symptoms
Poor ventilation can lead to unhealthy air quality, as it causes pollutants and other particles to accumulate in a space. Lower ventilation rates have been linked to upper respiratory symptoms, greater prevalence and incidence of symptoms of sick building syndrome, and an increased risk for viral infections. Indoor exposure to substances such as pollen, dust mites, and pests – which are commonly present in schools – can cause allergic reactions in many people. Common symptoms of allergic reactions are similar to those of a cold, including a runny nose and congestion, sneezing, and watery eyes. Asthma often accompanies allergies, and asthma symptoms in the lungs and airways can be triggered by the same allergens. Symptoms due to poor IAQ caused by volatile organic compounds (VOCs) include asthma-like symptoms in schoolchildren as well as eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches and nausea. Lung development occurs from birth into our 20s – during that time, lungs are especially sensitive to the effects of air pollution, making children especially vulnerable to air pollution’s adverse effects.
Increased Sick Days
Unhealthy air quality has also been associated with more missed school days by students, and more sick days taken by teachers. Lower ventilation rates, which allow for greater accumulation of CO2 and various air pollutants, have been linked to more missed school days caused by respiratory infections in students. Similarly, consistently poor IAQ in schools has been associated with increased teacher absenteeism (more sick days), compared to schools with good and improved IAQ.
5. Lower Job Satisfaction and Higher Turnover
When poor IEQ is readily perceived, people can become very dissatisfied. In a survey of teachers in Chicago and Washington, DC, air quality was the number one complaint, with over half of all teachers reporting it as an issue. Moreover, many teachers reported that the conditions in their school were affecting their career decisions, leading them to consider changing schools or even leaving teaching altogether. Greater teacher turnover requires schools to devote time and resources to attracting new teachers, which also affects student learning outcomes because new teachers may not be as effective as experienced ones. Conversely, classrooms with good IEQ – high thermal and visual comfort, fresh and clean indoor air, and good acoustics – are pleasant and effective places to work, and can help to recruit and retain teachers, as well as improve their overall satisfaction with their work.
Importance of IEQ in Schools
School environments can shape students’ health, well-being and learning in profound ways. IEQ can also affect educators, enabling them to effectively teach their students in learning-conducive spaces, or decreasing their job satisfaction if the quality of indoor environments is poor, in turn prompting greater staff turnover. Delos is proud to offer solutions for schools that improve IAQ and create healthier environments for all. Get in touch with us to see how your students, teachers and staff can benefit from cleaner air.
Regina Vaicekonyte, MSc, WELL AP, is a Vice President at Delos Labs who specializes in research on healthy built environments to develop and evaluate products and services for commercial, residential and hospitality sectors. Her work on healthy buildings has been published in peer-reviewed journals, books and digital platforms.