Penny-Pinching Ways To Improve Indoor Air

by RACHEL SMOLKIN

As school administrators grapple with budget deficits, fluctuating enrollments and expanding testing requirements, ridding a school of dust mites and stale air may seem like an agenda item of secondary importance unlikely to receive funding.

But environmental experts and school administrators suggest improving a building’s environment is feasible even if a district’s resources are limited and money is scarce.

“These are voluntary programs,” says Julio Rovi, a senior associate at The Cadmus Group, a federal contractor for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that works with schools on energy and indoor air quality initiatives.

Among the recommendations he and others offer for starting an indoor air quality program with current staffing and existing resources are these:

* Form an indoor air quality team. Designate an indoor air quality coordinator and involve all relevant departments and staff.

The EPA recommends that an indoor air quality team consist of a principal, a nurse, a teacher, the facilities chief, a parent and possibly a school business official. Successful school environmental programs have support from school administrators and school board members.

“The No. 1 thing we’ve never seen work is to pretend it doesn’t happen or to pretend it’s only a problem for one individual office in the district,” Rovi says. “The fragmented approach usually does not work.”

* Use the Tools for Schools kit. Use the EPA’s free resource kit, available from AASA, to identify and evaluate problems before hiring costly consultants or paying for expensive tests.

Tackle the easy fixes first. Seal food properly to discourage cockroaches and other pests. Clean schools thoroughly to minimize dust. Vacuum carpets frequently to control dust and curtail mold.

* Don’t attempt a stand-alone project. When addressing indoor air improvement, you can save money by looking for ways to incorporate air quality initiatives into existing budgets. Tie indoor air quality corrections to school renovations and other improvement projects.

Rovi recommends schools link air quality improvements with energy-efficiency projects. He estimates that schools could save 10 to 30 percent of the cost in their utility bills by replacing outdated cooling, heating and ventilation systems with more modern, energy-efficient systems.

Adina Neale, the indoor air quality coordinator at Saugus Union School District in Los Angeles County, suggests folding indoor air quality activities into the maintenance budget.

“It can be dovetailed into the existing maintenance program quite easily, and it’s easier to do when you’re not in a crisis mode,” she says. “You can make the transition within half a year.” Also, going districtwide allows administrators to standardize equipment and staff training and eliminate liability loopholes.

When neglected problems burgeon into crises, such as floods resulting from leaky roofs and basements, school officials may be forced to dip into emergency funds and spend 10 to 20 times the sum that smaller, preventive repairs would have cost, Rovi says.

* Educate staff. Teachers and custodial staff need to know what constitutes an effective indoor air quality program, and they will need some training.

Instruct teachers to make sure air vents remain unblocked. Keep classrooms free of clutter to help custodians clean efficiently and effectively. Erase chalkboards at the end of each day to control chalk dust. Ask teachers to inform the air quality team if they or their students experience physical discomfort such as persistent headaches, itchy eyes or respiratory distress.

“You can do all this great maintenance work and it won’t matter unless you have trained staff,” Neale says.

* Explain your actions. Unless you’re confronting a crisis, take your time and gradually develop and expand your new indoor air quality program. Let parents and staff know what you are doing and why.

“We were scared to death as to how we were going to do this without putting people in a panic,” says Don Kussmaul, superintendent of the East Dubuque, Ill., Unit School District 119. “You have to keep calm. Go about it slowly and openly.”