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Ventilation and Student Performance

On average, Americans spend 90% of their time indoors where concentrations of pollutants are two to five times higher than outdoors.  As more and more data is gathered about Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), we are learning how indicative IAQ is to student and adult health and its impact on student learning.  According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 50% of schools have issues with substandard IAQ.  These issues can have a negative impact on student performance through increased absenteeism, inattentiveness, and overall academic performance.  Indoor Air Quality issues can also have an impact on employee performance and absenteeism due to illness.

IAQ is directly related to how a facility is ventilated. In the context of this article and HVAC systems, ventilation is defined as the introduction of fresh outdoor air to a room that is filtered and conditioned. Many states regulate IAQ by referencing an industry-wide standard developed by the American Society of Heating Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) who provide model regulations as design minimums for new buildings, additions, and major renovations through research and continuing education to protect human well-being. Their design standards recommend 15-22 cubic feet of outside air per minute per student.

A vast majority of states regulate IAQ by referencing this industry-wide standard. Some states, however, stipulate design criteria that is only 7.5 feet of outside air per minute per student. This value coincides with a 1980s period where ventilation rates were significantly reduced and Sick Building Syndrome became widespread. The effects include irritated eyes, nose, and throat, upper respiratory issues, nausea, dizziness, headaches and fatigue. It’s no wonder that students and staff are more engaged and academically/professionally successful when feeling the benefits of optimal IAQ (US).

These findings of air quality and human performance were confirmed in a 2015 study by the Harvard School of Public Health in collaboration with Syracuse University’s Center for Excellence TIEQ (Total Indoor Environmental Quality Laboratory).  The study involved 24 participants who spent 6 full days exposed to conditions such as varying CO2 levels to which participants were blind to.   “At the end of each day they were administered a cognitive test to evaluate decision-making performance by simulating real-world scenarios.” Across nine functional domains, including crisis response, strategy, and focused activity level, their findings were that CO2, VOCs, and ventilation rate all had significant impacts on cognitive function (“The Impact”).

The responsibility of regulating IAQ rests primarily on district administrators and school boards who are perennially experiencing financial limitations, operating older ventilation equipment that has issues with controls, capacity, filtration, parts availability, poor efficiency, and noise level.  Budgets are tight and ventilation equipment is expensive to purchase and maintain. That is why there are numerous factors that need to be scrutinized for school officials to make prudent decisions about the best systems for their facilities.  Some of the considerations center around: budget vs. life cycle cost, noise, performance and efficiency, load stability, maintenance and service availability, infrastructure, space availability, code compliance, existing ductwork, air returns, existing controls, and engineering costs.  In many situations, there is an efficiency of scale where districts can also update lighting, sound and clock systems, add sprinklers, replace aging roof materials, and add insulation when the facility is already dismantled

Another consideration when improving IAQ is dehumidification, or air conditioning; the least expensive and intrusive time to add it is when there are already other HVAC projects taking place.  According to an Energy Information Administration survey in 2009, nearly 80% of Midwest households had at least some air conditioning.  In the past, air conditioning in schools may have been considered more of a luxury; however, as more and more information is becoming available regarding student attention span, overall energy level, and even academic performance, dehumidification is something that school officials should consider. Additional factors regarding dehumidification center around the general health and life cycle of the facility.  In uncontrolled environments, ceiling tiles age much more quickly, adhesives tend to let go more easily, and potentially provide environments more conducive to mold and mildew growth.  The estimated cost of adding dehumidification is about 25-40 cents per square foot.  The real challenge is to have the correct controls for the facility so that conditioned air is available only in the necessary locations at the necessary times (US).When a district makes these improvements, there are additional benefits of today’s more modern ventilation systems. They are typically centrally located (versus unit ventilators for each individual classroom), run more efficiently, provide better filtration, are easier to work on, are sized properly for the correct outside air supply, and provide more energy savings.  Renovations generally utilize induction displacement, overhead mixed indoor, overhead mixed rooftop, traditional displacement systems, or classroom air handlers and more modern unit ventilators.  All of these systems vary in cost and benefits.

Operating today’s schools in a fiscally responsible manner continues to be a challenge for educators and school officials.  The school buildings are often the most valuable and utilized realty in a district and require maintenance for their longevity and operational efficiency. The additional advantage of investing in facility IAQ is that it is proven to reduce student and staff absenteeism due to illness. The result is something every educator endeavors: an improved learning environment that promotes academic achievement.


“The Impact of Buildings on Cognitive Functioning.” CHGE Harvard.  1 Nov. 2016. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

US Green Buildings Council. USGBC. “Indoor Air Quality and Student Performance.” Web. 2001.