School Environments Shape Health and Learning
An increasing amount of scientific evidence suggests that the physical environments in which children spend their time have a profound impact on their health and ability to learn. Today, children spend most of their waking hours outside of home in school. Providing a healthy environment for all children at school can therefore make an important impact on the lifetime health and academic success of the next generation.
Students are required to attend school, yet not all school environments are healthy.
Because school attendance is mandated by law, federal, state and local governments have a responsibility to provide healthy school environments. Yet large-scale research continues to show this responsibility is not always met. The U.S. Government Accountability Office notes, “While laws compel children to attend school, some school buildings may be unsafe or even harmful to children’s health.” According to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, percent of America’s public schools report at least one unsatisfactory environmental condition. In addition, 25 percent report unsatisfactory ventilation, while 20 percent report unsatisfactory indoor air quality.
Children are especially vulnerable to environmental hazards.
Research demonstrates that young children are uniquely vulnerable to environmental health hazards, and that some health and learning problems are linked to pollutant exposure. Children are ultimately exposed to more hazards because they eat proportionally more food, drink more fluids, and breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults, and their response to toxic substances can differ markedly from those seen in adults. As children, they are less able to protect themselves.
Disparities persist in access to healthy environments at school.
Schools serving communities of color and low-income communities have higher rates of environmental health hazards as compared to the national average. These environmental factors can exacerbate health problems and contribute to perpetuating educationally relevant health disparities, which research increasingly links to the achievement gap. In this context, even the best efforts by educators are hindered by unhealthy environmental conditions.
Operations + Maintenance
School environmental health issues generally span two categories: school operations and maintenance and school construction (including decisions about siting and renovations).
Operations and maintenance play a major role in the environmental health of a school and are shaped directly by policy at the federal, state and local (school district) levels. Specific issues in this category include Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), toxic and hazardous chemicals, pests and pesticides, mold, asbestos, lead, radon and exhaust. The good news is that health-promoting policy can make a tremendous impact on operations and maintenance, and can bring about significant improvements soon after implementation.
School Construction + Siting
Where and how a school is constructed fundamentally shapes its environmental impact and potential hazards to occupants. Health-promoting policies on school siting, construction and renovation can have a significant impact on the health of building occupants and surrounding communities. The factors involved are far-reaching and often intersect with wellness issues such as walkability and access to outdoor space for physical activity. Policy in this area is based on a long-term vision for healthy schools and communities.
Focus on Indoor Air Quality
One issue of particular note related to both operations and construction is Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). Irritants and allergens such as pests, pesticides, molds, asbestos and cleaning products can have a negative impact on indoor air in schools. The effects of poor IAQ on health, learning and general well-being are wide-ranging and include allergies and asthma, increased rates of infectious diseases, chronic sinusitis, headaches and a variety of respiratory diseases. Poor IAQ is closely connected to attendance and absenteeism; the American Lung Association found that children miss more than 14 million school days each year because of asthma, which is exacerbated by poor IAQ.
School Environments Vary Widely by State and District
Currently, policy to guide school environmental health varies widely across the nation as the federal government does not set standards for school siting, construction or operations. This lack of federal standards to protect students makes advocacy and awareness at the state and local levels especially critical.
The federal government does support school environmental health policy by issuing voluntary guidance through the EPA and CDC, including research-based best practice guides that address operations, maintenance, school siting and more. This includes the EPA’s Healthy Schools, Healthy Kids resources and the CDC’s Children’s Health & the Built Environment resources.
Operations + Maintenance
Policies addressing the environmental health aspects of school operations and maintenance vary by state and district. Many excellent resources, including health-promoting model policies, are available to support schools, districts and states in creating policies that ensure the day-to-day operations of a school support health and learning. HSC supports broad adoption of health-promoting policy informed by this research-based guidance. In particular, HSC has played a lead role in developing resources and advocating for policy to support green cleaning in schools.
National. HSC supports the recommendations issued by the EPA and CDC (above) and advocates for states and districts to follow these best practices when making decisions about school operations. HSC also works with advocates and on-the-ground school facility leaders across the nation to create resources that support school green cleaning policy and practice. See What We’re Doing for more.
State. States can play a critical leadership role in promoting healthy school environments for children. Health-promoting state policy can create a foundation (or in its absence, leave a void) for health-supporting programs that promote best practices for environmental health in schools. One in five states now requires green cleaning in schools and many states now support schools with environmental health policies addressing factors ranging from integrated pest control to radon to general indoor air quality efforts. Overall, the policy environment for school operations and maintenance varies greatly by state. See the Environmental Law Institute’s excellent reports on state policies and the policy section of our Green Clean Schools site for more detail.
Local. Even in the absence of strong federal or state protections for school environmental health, school districts can set policy to ensure that the day-to-day operations of a school support health and learning. For example, HSC advocates for districts to adopt policies requiring green cleaning in schools. Many cities already require health and sustainability standards for public facilities that may address operational issues such as pest management, operations or cleaning. Some districts choose to go beyond these requirements by adopting strong health and sustainability standards. Such policies vary widely and represent an opportunity for local advocates to have a meaningful impact on school environmental health.
School Siting + Construction
The policy environment for school siting and construction also varies widely by state and district. Yet we know as a nation what types of policy elements directly support school environmental health and learning: Research-based federal recommendations and voluntary third-party guidelines have existed for many years in this area. HSC supports broad adoption of health-promoting policy informed by this research-based guidance.
National. HSC supports the recommendations issued by the EPA and CDC (above) and advocates for states and districts to follow these best practices when making decisions about school siting and construction. In 2013, the EPA also released new guidelines for school siting. Rochelle Davis, President and CEO of HSC, served on the committee to create these recommendations. Strong and health-promoting guidelines for school construction have been issued by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the Collaborative for High Performance Schools (CHPS). HSC supports these recommendations and advocates for policy at the state and district levels to adhere to these guidelines when constructing new buildings or renovating existing school buildings.
State. Currently, state policies for school facility siting and construction vary greatly across the country. Some states require new construction and renovation to adhere to health-promoting green standards such as those outlined by the USGBC and CHPS. See the Environmental Law Institute’s excellent reports on state policies for more detail about the current environment in each state.
Local. School districts can also adopt policy to guide the construction and renovation of school buildings in ways that support environmental health and walkable communities. Many cities already require health and sustainability standards for public facilities. Some districts choose to go beyond these requirements by adopting health and sustainability standards such as the USGBC’s LEED for Schools or CHPS for all new or renovated school facilities. Such policies vary widely.
HSC’s current advocacy for national policy to support healthy school environments focuses on highlighting the connection between environments, health and academic success. This includes:
Documenting the impact with health and wellness metrics.
Given the education sector’s increased emphasis on data-based decision making and given the importance of health to academic success, there is an important opportunity for integrating health and wellness metrics (including those focused on environmental health) into public reporting systems used by the education sector. These metrics can highlight environmental issues that need to be resolved and can provide educators and policymakers with more robust information about the ways learning is affected by school environments. HSC focuses on this advocacy through our work with the National Collaborative on Education and Health.
Identifying and addressing environmental factors that contribute to chronic absenteeism.
Chronic absenteeism, defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days for any reason, is closely linked to chronic health conditions and can be exacerbated by environmental conditions at school. For example, asthma is a leading cause of absenteeism and asthma attacks can be triggered by exposure to chemicals and mold or by generally poor indoor air quality. HSC advocates for policy to support schools in addressing chronic absenteeism—including efforts to identify and resolve environmental problems—through our work with the National Collaborative on Education and Health and our education policy efforts. Learn more about chronic absenteeism in the education policy section of this site.
Urging federal leaders to document the state of our nation’s school buildings and provide resources for needed repairs.
In 1996, the GAO issued a report documenting the state of our nation’s school building infrastructure and identifying significant needs, including vast environmental health challenges. We believe the federal government should undertake this reporting of public infrastructure regularly, at least every 10 years. In 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the economic stimulus bill), the federal government provided funding to be used for repairing and modernizing school buildings. While this funding represented a small percentage of the overall need, its significant impact highlights the role the federal government can play in improving the conditions of our nation’s schools, particularly to address great disparities in access to safe, modern school facilities.
Important Role for Advocates
Advocates have a key role to play in supporting environmental health in schools, particularly in speaking up for health-promoting state and local policy in the absence of strong federal requirements.
States can play a key role in ensuring that schools provide a healthy environment for students, yet policy varies widely across the nation. As an advocate, you can:
Support the development of a state school environmental health plan.
The EPA has developed a comprehensive toolkit to guide this effort, called Voluntary Guidelines for States: Development and Implementation of a School Environmental Health Program. HSC supported the development of this toolkit, in part by convening stakeholders to develop recommendations to EPA on this issue.
Speak up for state laws that support healthy school environments.
This includes laws addressing school siting and construction as well as operations and maintenance. For example, state laws can address mold, radon, carbon monoxide, integrated pest management, vehicle idling, green cleaning, indoor air quality and more. The Environmental Law Institute provides an excellent overview of such laws and where they have been adopted. In particular, strong resources are available to support advocates in speaking up for policies that support:
- Green cleaning. HSC supports state-level advocacy for green cleaning laws. For more, visit the policy section of our Green Clean Schools site.
- Green school construction. HSC’s partners at the U.S. Green Building Council provide excellent resources to support state-level green school construction policies.
- Health-promoting school siting. The EPA has issued clear guidelines for school siting policies and decisions.
Encourage your state education leaders to participate in the U.S. Department of Education’s Green Ribbon program.
Green Ribbon Schools is an award program that encourages schools and communities to promote healthy and sustainable environments and educate students to become environmentally literate citizens. In order for schools in your state to be eligible for this award, your state’s department of education must agree to participate in the program. See a list of participating state authorities.
Local District or School
Develop an indoor air quality plan.
Adopt and implement a green cleaning policy.
For more, see HSC’s 5 Steps to Green Cleaning in Schools.
Work with your school to meet Green Ribbon Schools standards.
Your school may be eligible for recognition through the Green Ribbon Schools award program; in any case, students and school staff will experience the benefits of a healthier school environment.
Access related resources below, or go to our main Resource Center to access resources across all of our program and policy areas.
Big Green Homegrown
Big Green’s new online hub and weekly email series full of fun and educational activities for kids and families.
CDC’s Healthy Schools Website
A resource for data, multimedia, tools, training and resources from the CDC.