Classroom concept

Nevada’s Clark County School District (CCSD) — the fifth largest school district in the United States — faces unique challenges in maintaining optimal indoor air quality (IAQ) across its numerous facilities. A comprehensive approach to IAQ is critical, with over 300,000 students, 40,000 employees, and an array of buildings — including 386 schools.  

As environmental director, my vision for enhancing IAQ across our district through facility maintenance and operations integrates health, sustainability, and well-being for all our students and staff. By identifying and addressing potential issues, we are taking proactive steps toward improving the IAQ for our students and staff. CCSD’s success story in carbon dioxide (CO2) monitoring presents a roadmap other school districts can use to address IAQ challenges effectively in their buildings.   

Identifying the Challenge 

Our journey toward better IAQ began with an observation that we found concerning yet constructive. One of our teachers reported feeling unwell in her portable classroom and suspected mold growth. We immediately took action and investigated the matter. Using handheld monitors, we discovered that the CO2 levels in the classroom were well over 2,000 parts per million (ppm). Although not hazardous, CO2 levels in this range could lead to discomfort and may explain some of the symptoms the teacher had been experiencing.  

This discovery prompted us to assess all our portable classrooms, with a specific focus on indoor air quality. Like many homes, poor IAQ in these portable classrooms is often caused by poor ventilation.  

To address the ventilation issues, we modified the air conditioning units in portable classrooms to introduce 100 percent outdoor air. The immediate and significant positive impact that resulted inspired us to delve deeper into IAQ issues more broadly.  

We launched a pilot program that focused solely on the portable classrooms at one of the high school s. It revealed not just CO2  issues, but a range of IAQ challenges. From odors caused by forgotten food items to particulate matter from inadequate cleaning, these findings highlighted the need for better air monitoring practices that could strategically inform our facility cleaning and maintenance practices. 

An Integrated Approach to IAQ 

CCSD’s approach to IAQ goes beyond addressing immediate concerns. For instance, a survey revealed that teacher comfort was a significant issue influenced by factors such as temperature. This led to the discovery of malfunctioning thermostats in many classrooms. Consequently, we embarked on a district-wide initiative to install 1,700 smart thermostats capable of monitoring temperature and CO2 levels, as well as adjusting fresh air intake accordingly. This improved comfort and provided valuable data for ongoing IAQ management. 

The installation of smart thermostats commenced in June 2023 and was completed in a remarkable three months. This initiative — funded by Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER II) funds — has resulted in substantial financial and energy savings for Clark County School District. The new thermostats have reduced HVAC operational times by an estimated 50 percent, saving approximately $50,000 per month in energy costs. 

Encouraged by the success of portable classrooms, CCSD is now considering expanding smart technology across the district. Many of our current building automation systems are outdated, and an upgrade could enhance comfort, reduce maintenance labor, and generate significant energy savings. 

Key Takeaways 

For districts looking to improve their indoor air quality, outline a pilot program and seek help from external professional environmental services before getting started. Vendor selection is crucial; consider factors like product quality, installation support, data security, and staff capacity to operate at the necessary scale. It is essential to ensure access to and ownership of the data.  

Implementing a pilot program can be challenging. Whenever possible, leverage the progress of other peer institutions/professionals who can provide help along the way. Clark County School District does this by participating in the Healthy Green Schools and Colleges Program.  

CCSD's journey in optimizing indoor air quality is a testament to our commitment to creating a healthy, sustainable, and efficient learning environment. By addressing IAQ proactively, we're not just improving the immediate building environment but investing in the long-term well-being of our students and staff.

Lori Olson is the Director of Environmental Services for Clark County School District. She is committed to creating a healthy and safe learning environment for students by linking indoor air quality, energy efficiency, and preventive maintenance. With Lori’s support, Clark County School District joined Healthy Green Schools & Colleges.