The COVID-19 pandemic made creating healthy school environments an urgent national priority and shone a light on the serious under-investment in school facilities nationwide. Today, schools face unique challenges as they continue to navigate the pandemic.

While preexisting issues remain important when it comes to the improvement of educational enviroments — such as addressing poor indoor air quality, which affected nearly half of American schools prior to the pandemic — other concerns are now commanding the attention of facility professionals. Improved ventilation, safer cleaning practices, more sustainable purchasing policies, and communicating safety protocols are playing larger roles than ever in the conversation about safe and healthy schools.

Challenges Facing Schools

Kids spend more than 1,000 hours at school each year, making school facilities their most important indoor environment after home. Yet, even before the pandemic, nearly half of U.S. schools reported indoor air quality problems that put the health of students and staff at risk.

Unhealthy indoor air, inadequate ventilation, and chemical exposure from cleaning and maintenance routines continue to present systemic challenges in all sorts of school districts. On top of health concerns, these issues are linked to poor concentration and test performance in students, adding preventable barriers to achievement.

Studies that measure school conditions using an index of several variables consistently show improved scores on standardized tests as school conditions improve. On the other hand, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), schools with major unmet repair needs and fewer custodial workers per square foot have higher absentee rates and higher dropout rates.

Nearly 80 percent of teachers responding to a survey in Chicago and the District of Columbia reported that school facility conditions were an important factor in teaching quality. Almost half of the teachers who graded their facilities "C" or below would consider leaving, and the most frequently cited problem was bad indoor air quality.

Pandemic-related issues are compounding these longstanding challenges. Custodian shortages are affecting districts' cleaning capabilities, while budget reductions are limiting the opportunities to hire experienced staff or retain existing employees. In some cases, custodians who have been employed by a district for years are paid less than new hires — an issue which often increases turnover rate and decreases the morale and quality of work performed.

During a time when cleaning and safety are at the forefront of the national conversation, more is being asked of custodial staff in terms of work hours and workload, but also in the communication that is expected between employees and stakeholders.

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Funding Can Improve Facilities, Standard Protocols