More Than Scrubbing: How to Make Schools Safer During COVID and Beyond

December 09, 2020

Photo Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action (CC BY-NC 4.0).

In a recent New York Times article on how disinfecting surfaces has become the mainstay of public efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, health experts made the point that excessive cleaning could distract from what’s really needed–a focus on preventing airborne transmission.

As the story notes, the problem with “hygiene theater” isn’t just the false sense of security it imparts around COVID-19. Increased use of chemical products can worsen indoor air quality, and poor air quality can exacerbate other health issues, such as allergies and asthma, and make it more difficult to fight the coronavirus. 

HSC President and CEO Rochelle Davis wrote a response, published in the Times on Dec. 2, calling on Congress to provide federal funding to help schools reopen safely. The stalled Heroes Act includes $5 billion for emergency school facilities repairs, such as overhauling outdated heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems to improve airflow.

“Scrubbing surfaces makes us feel safer, but clean desks won’t matter if schools don’t have clean air,” Davis wrote. The numbers cited demonstrate how widespread the problem is:

Earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office estimated that 41 percent of school districts need to update or replace HVAC systems in at least half their school buildings; that’s about 36,000 schools. Even before Covid, more than 14 million school days were missed every year because of asthma, a chronic condition worsened by poor indoor air quality.

It’s easier to find funding for cleaning products than for structural improvements, which is why many schools focus on disinfecting. Yet we must consider the health risks from over-cleaning and using more chemicals in poorly ventilated areas, especially in low-income communities that are already most affected by the coronavirus.

The need for HVAC improvements is particularly great in high-poverty school districts that have been underfunded for years. Older school buildings are more likely to lack air conditioning and adequate ventilation that can help increase airflow, exposing millions of students to unsafe levels of lead, asbestos, chemical fumes, pesticides, molds and other toxins. 

The Hechinger Report recently published an excellent, in-depth story on how inequality in school funding has forced more Black and Latinx students across the country into remote learning situations because of safety concerns. Teachers can’t teach and students can’t learn in buildings without adequate airflow—and telling those schools just to open the windows isn’t an adequate solution. 

In addition to advocating for federal funding to help schools reopen safely, HSC is also helping school facility managers and custodial staff address the unique challenges posed by COVID-19. HSC’s Healthy Green Schools & Colleges program published Guidelines for COVID-19 Cleaning and Disinfection and created a library of COVID-19 resources, including cleaning checklists, school reopening policies and training procedures. 

We’re also making available the Healthy Green Schools & Colleges COVID-19 webinar series, featuring facility managers with expertise in green cleaning. They answer viewer questions and review school reopening challenges and success stories.

As families, educators and school leaders weigh the safety of reopening schools against the educational and other risks involved with staying remote, Congress must release funding to invest in school improvements, including indoor air quality. Let’s start with districts that have been overlooked and underfunded for far too long.