WASHINGTON – Maryland is taking advantage of federal funding and new technology to stay at the forefront of school air-quality monitoring, a measure that can help students learn and keep them in the classroom.
Airborne mold, asbestos and bacteria are known health risks, so school administrators are trying to monitor for these before they cause problems.
Most recently, Baltimore County Public Schools announced a new indoor air quality grant on Jan. 31. The initiative is based on a $50,000 one-year grant from the Environmental Protection Agency for Baltimore, Cecil and Carroll counties’ public schools.
Air monitoring provides students with more than just fresh air. Research has linked indoor air quality with student performance.
“A good indoor air environment, we believe, is a contributor to success,” said Perry Willis, executive director for support services in Cecil County Public Schools, which received an award of excellence from the EPA last month for its air-quality efforts.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Education Research and Improvement has found students in schools with poor air quality score 11 percent lower on standardized tests than students in schools with good air. The study has been quoted by the EPA.
Indoor air-quality initiatives at the county level have mostly been created in the last several years, school administrators said.
“There’s no question about it,” said Stephen Guthrie, Carroll County schools assistant superintendent of administration. “I had not heard one word about indoor quality until about four years ago.”
State officials started to pay attention to school air in 1987, when the Maryland State Department of Education started sending air monitoring tips in bulletins to school districts, said Barbara Bice, MSDE branch chief for school facilities.
“It’s definitely not a new issue, but one we’re paying more attention to because people have gotten sick from the schools’ indoor environments,” said Jennie Young, air quality and schools project coordinator for the National Education Association Health Information Network.
Schools started to establish indoor air monitoring programs in the mid-1990s, when the EPA released its popular Tools for Schools, Young said. The tools are videos and planning sheets that outline prevention and trouble-shooting of indoor air risks.
This year, Baltimore County Public Schools will use Tools for Schools and train executives and custodial teams in 40 of its schools on good indoor air maintenance, said Brice Freeman, county schools public information officer.
BCPS hopes to cover all its 163 schools within four years by adding the program to about 40 new schools each year, Freeman said. The first 40 were chosen because they were not renovated recently or were at the greatest risk academically. They were also chosen geographically to cover all areas of the county, he said.
Training practices will include heating, ventilation and air conditioning checks, looking for ceiling tile leaks and changing air filters.
In the past year and a half, Carroll County has gone from reacting to preventing air quality risks, Guthrie said.
“We relied on someone complaining before we did anything,” he said.
In Cecil County, custodians systematically monitor the schools’ temperatures, HVAC systems and other environmental factors, Willis said. A stained ceiling tile, for example, could indicate a leaky roof and a breeding ground for bacteria that could be released into the air cycle, he said.
“What custodians are doing is being thorough, going out and looking for potentials,” he said.
Charles County conducts quarterly checks of its air systems. Indoor air quality can increase absences, especially among asthmatics or during flu season, said Glenn Belmore, special assistant for environmental safety and risk management at Charles County Public Schools.
Charles County uses a notification system to alert parents to air quality issues, such as painting projects or the “wrong type marker,” Belmore said.
“Since we’ve done that, we’ve had almost no complaints,” he said.
Besides homegrown efforts, county schools keep tabs on new EPA tools. The agency released the Healthy School Environments Assessment Tool in January, a computer program that lets districts log environmental concerns.
HealthySEAT uses Microsoft Access and lets administrators customize the software for their district. Administrators can create a series of test checklists for each school and catalog results.
Bice was impressed with the tool. The Maryland education system is broken into districts, each with numerous schools, so HealthySEAT checklists for each school are ideal, she said.
Meanwhile, the state will continue to offer general guidance on healthy school air, Bice said.
“Twenty years ago, (indoor air) was just beginning to be talked about,” she said. “Now, it’s very commonly recognized.”