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COVID-19 exposed the depth of need for repairs and upgrades to aging school buildings across the country—just as a growing body of research shows that districts can’t afford to postpone infrastructure investments.
Students need to see well, hear clearly, and feel comfortable in their environment—not to mention stay healthy enough to attend classes in the first place—to succeed in school. Yet the condition of acoustics, air quality, lighting, and temperature in classrooms nationwide continues to lead to lower academic outcomes.
Both new construction and improvements to existing facilities are costly. That makes the hundreds of billions of dollars in aid from the federal government’s COVID relief packages essential for creating a nurturing post-pandemic learning environment—especially since funding for school facilities varies greatly based on location.
There’s another perk to making sure a school’s physical environment is in top shape, says Paul Soares, P.E., assistant superintendent of operations for Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Florida: “It really enables us to attract the best teachers and the best staff and the best students.”
A classroom full of students inherently can be noisy, making it difficult to hear. Add in accommodations because of COVID-19—masks, plastic barriers, increased ventilation—and paying attention becomes even more challenging.
“I call it the Swiss cheese effect,” says Cheryl DeConde Johnson, owner of ADE-vantage, an audiology and deaf education consulting services business based in Colorado and Arizona. “There are holes in what you’re not hearing, so you have to fill in the gaps. But young children don’t have foundational knowledge to be able to do that, which then decreases what children gain from their interactions. It impacts their learning and academic achievement and creates a downward spiral.”
Because acoustics are hidden, architects who design schools often overlook the acoustic nature of the structures they’re designing and are usually brought in only when there’s an auditorium or some other performing arts space included in the plans, notes DeConde Johnson.
To raise awareness, DeConde Johnson is part of a committee helping to promote accepted (though inconsistently implemented) standards for classroom acoustics required by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), as well as International Code Council building codes that impact acoustics.
School boards can easily screen noise levels of classrooms—there are apps for that—but reverberation time, which is equally important, is more complicated to measure. Potential visual indicators of excessive reverberation times include hard, flat ceilings without acoustic tiles, painted ceiling tiles or ceilings heights over 11 feet, and walls and floors constructed of flat reflective materials such as concrete, tile, wood, and plasterboard.
Proposals for new construction or renovations, meanwhile, should include a stipulation for an acoustical consultation to ensure the building conforms to ANSI’s classroom acoustic standards.
Acoustic tiles and carpeting can help absorb sounds from loud ventilation systems. Classroom amplification systems also help. A microphone transmits a teacher’s voice to a speaker, which distributes that voice equally throughout the classroom, so students can hear well no matter where they are seated.
Historically, these audio systems have been put in classrooms with students who are hearing impaired or have processing disorders that require amplification.
“But we’ve discovered that they actually benefit all students, and they benefit English language learners quite significantly,” says Jennifer Dolloff, director of special education for the New Boston and Goffstown school districts in New Hampshire.
The state put a moratorium on building aid in 2011, so updating and constructing new schools is a challenge. As a result, classrooms are overcrowded and amplification systems are more important than ever. Using federal funding, administrators recently bought 16 of the systems for the Goffstown district.
Newer schools around the country are embedding amplification systems right into classrooms.
“Universal design, which is about designing buildings with everyone in mind, makes learning accessible for all rather than just plugging things in for a child with a disability,” says Dolloff.
Air quality in schools has taken center stage, given that COVID-19 is an airborne disease.
According to a June 2020 survey by the U.S Government Accountability Office, about half of school districts nationwide needed to update or replace multiple systems such as heating, air conditioning, and ventilation (HVAC).
As part of its phase-in plan to reopen school buildings, Chicago Public Schools late last year announced it had invested $8.5 million to buy air purifiers for every classroom. The purifiers filter air even if mechanical or natural ventilation becomes unavailable.
In April 2021, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools in Washington, D.C., published the only national view of how air quality measures have been implemented in schools during the pandemic. With technical support from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, the survey, which covered over 4,000 schools in 24 states, found that school systems struggled to put best practices in place because, in many cases, their mechanical systems were not designed to support those practices.
For example, out-of-date mechanical systems can be inadequate in keeping carbon dioxide levels low (for better focus), filtering out particles (to keep lungs healthy and stop viral transmissions), and making sure enough oxygen is being circulated from the outdoors (for retaining information).
Between school district funding and (where available) state-level funding, across the country only two-thirds of what should be spent on capital expenditures and maintenance and operations at schools is being spent. That impacts school building conditions and schools’ ability to meet industry air quality standards.
As a result, districts should tap into American Rescue Plan funding, administered through the U.S. Department of Education, which allocates $176 billion for K-12 schools, according to Center for Green Schools Director Anisa Heming. Because facility upgrades are one of the allowable uses of these funds, “it would be a missed opportunity to neglect bringing facilities decision-makers to the table,” says Heming.
For districts that have already mapped out where their money is going, it’s not too late, Heming notes, adding that Rescue Plan funds can be spent until 2024, and districts can revise plans along the way.
Lighting and green space
It’s possible to increase air filtration even in an old building. One way is to replace fluorescent or LED troffer light fixtures in drop-in ceilings with recessed troffers that pull air through the fixture. Air from the room passes through a HEPA filter and a chamber where it’s exposed to disinfecting UVC light.
Intelligent lighting systems continue to evolve, with an increased focus on human-centric lighting—light that works with our circadian rhythms—for positively impacting attention span, concentration, performance, and behavior.
“In the morning, a cooler and brighter light gets the mind going so they can absorb subjects better,” says Cheryl Aquadro, K-12 vertical market director at Johnson Controls, which develops infrastructure technology such as lighting and HVAC for schools. This blue-toned light, mimicking daylight, raises dopamine, endorphin, and cortisol levels that studies show promote better focus and visual acuity.
“And then in the afternoon you can have a more desirable warm tone,” Aquadro, says. Good for reading and studying, dimmer yellow tones imitate sunset hues, helping the body produce melatonin and creating a sense of comfort.
Different parts of the classroom can use different types of light, depending on what students need at any given time.
In 2016, a $500,000 investment that went to smart lighting systems throughout Michigan’s Byron Center Public Schools “helped create that optimal learning environment where kids can focus on learning and not be distracted by a bulb that’s flickering or humming or whistling,” says Superintendent Kevin Macina.
Flickering lights have been shown to cause headaches, eye strain, fatigue, and decreased productivity. Byron Center replaced 6,000 bulbs in 3,000 fixtures through a grant and utility company rebates.
“Sometimes we have to be creative in finding resources,” says Macina. “They’re out there—we just have to look for them. Even though there’s a lot of upfront work, the long-term gains in both economics and achievement are definitely worth looking at.”
Adding green space is another option for promoting effective learning. One study compared the effect on achievement between students in rooms with no daylight, students in rooms with daylight, and students in rooms with both daylight and green space. The results showed that while no difference existed between the two rooms without visual access to green space, classroom views to green landscapes caused significantly better performance of attention and increased recovery from stressful experiences.
“If schools don’t have opportunities for students to look out onto green spaces every day, then there’s a lost opportunity to support them in a scientifically sound fashion that would advance their capacity to learn,” says study co-author William Sullivan, a landscape architecture professor at the University of Illinois.
In 2019, a year after a viral photo showed Baltimore City Public Schools students huddled together as classroom temperatures sunk to the low 40s, the school system spent millions of dollars to install temperature sensors that alert district officials if classrooms get too cold.
Yet while students can’t concentrate if they’re too cold, research also has shown that heat comes with its own problems.
On average, student achievement falls by the equivalent of 1 percent of a year’s worth of learning for each additional degree Fahrenheit the temperature rises during the previous year. That’s according to the first evidence that cumulative heat exposure inhibits cognitive skill development, and that school air conditioning can be a mitigator.
The research study, published in 2018, found that students scored lower when they’d just experienced a hot school year than when they’d just experienced a cool school year. Low-income and minority students were impacted more than others. Air conditioning in schools all but eliminated the impact of heat.
“We’ve known for a long time that there’s been a large gap—and a very persistent gap—in standardized achievement between white students and racial minorities, and it looks like from our research that up to 5 to 7 percent of that gap can be attributed to the physical environment in which the learning happens,” says co-author R. Jisung Park, an economist and assistant professor at UCLA.
Air conditioning is a good solution but shouldn’t be the only one, particularly given the environmental cost of its CO2 emissions, says Park, who suggests supplementary investments such as planting more trees and converting standard rooftops to greentops.
“School administrators need to think about the fact that the climate we live in today is not going to be the climate we live and go to school in 10, 20, 30 years from now,” says Park. “I want to emphasize just how quickly the climate is about to change.”
‘Providing at the basic level'
School districts should plot out several key steps, which, “one after another after another,” wind up forming a sensible, education-forward master facility plan, says Soares, the assistant superintendent of operations in Jacksonville, Florida.
With a maintenance backlog of $1 billion, Duval County Public Schools first conducted a facility condition assessment to identify maintenance needs, followed by an enrollment projection. The resulting master facility plan wound up recommending the replacement, consolidation and/or closure of 44 schools into 28 new school facilities, including one new school at a new location in the southeastern part of Duval County.
Money saved can then be put toward new buildings. Says Soares: “We build new schools to the most current educational standards. They’re so much more modern and capable and flexible.”
Any plan for upgrades—whether in a building that’s state-of-the-art or more than a century old—needs to consider the needs of each occupant, advises Dollof, the special education director from New Hampshire.
“Everything we do in schools as far as thinking ahead and planning for every student results in a much bigger bang for your buck,” she says. “It’s about providing at the basic level the most we can so that all benefit.”