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Better ventilation means healthier students, but many schools can't afford to upgrade

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Let's face it. Two years ago, if I started talking about ventilation, you might have just yawned and tuned me out. But the COVID pandemic has highlighted just how much the air we breathe matters, especially in our schools. Air quality experts say the health benefits of better air quality go far beyond COVID, but many schools face major challenges when it comes to making these upgrades. NPR's Maria Godoy has more.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Not many people can say the pandemic has made their job easier. But in some ways, Tracy Washington Enger can.

TRACY WASHINGTON ENGER: You know, it is such a hallelujah moment. Absolutely.

GODOY: Enger works at the Environmental Protection Agency's Indoor Environments Division. For more than 25 years, she's been fighting to improve the air quality inside of America's schools because the benefits of doing so are well-documented and substantial. When a room is better ventilated, influenza rates drop. The number of asthma attacks go down. Reading and math test scores go up.

ENGER: One of the things that has been a real mission for us has been to help schools recognize that creating healthy learning environments is really connected to health and academic performance.

GODOY: But there are lots of competing demands for limited school budgets. And getting school districts to focus on indoor air quality hasn't been easy. Often, she says, it took some kind of crisis.

ENGER: When they found the mold problem, when their asthma rates were kind of going through the roof, then they started to seek out that kind of help with indoor air quality. And they would find it.

GODOY: Then came the COVID pandemic, spread by virus particles that can linger in the air. The key to clearing out those infectious particles, - good ventilation and air filtration. Suddenly, finally, lots of people have started to pay attention to indoor air quality. And it's about time, says Joseph Allen. He directs Harvard's Healthy Buildings Program.

JOSEPH ALLEN: The way we design, operate or buildings has been an afterthought for too long.

GODOY: Even though, Allen says, the health and academic benefits of good ventilation in schools have been seen repeatedly in different countries and ages.

ALLEN: We see benefits in kindergartners. We see benefits in high schoolers. We see benefits in college students and middle schoolers - every age group.

GODOY: Allen says understanding these wider benefits of better ventilation beyond COVID is vital.

ALLEN: I'm a parent. You think about all the things we do to help our kids succeed. But to think that the air quality in their school and other factors like acoustics and lighting are all influencing their performance, but we just don't pay attention to them - it's a gross oversight, and it speaks to our neglect of school infrastructure that has gone on for too long.

GODOY: That's why Allen applauded the new emphasis on school ventilation in the Biden administration's National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan. The plan encourages schools to improve air quality using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. Anisa Heming of the Center for Green Schools says one-third of all schools have outdated HVAC systems. Some don't even have mechanical systems to bring in fresh air. Surveys conducted by the center find that that aging infrastructure has been a major obstacle to improving air quality in schools.

ANISA HEMING: We keep hearing the same challenge, which is that school buildings are in bad shape. And so they need, in some cases, pretty major renovations in order to implement some of these recommendations.

GODOY: But that kind of work takes months of planning. There's no clear data on how many schools have made ventilation upgrades so far. But the EPA's Tracy Enger says interest in the agency's guidance for schools has soared in the past year. Finally, she says, people are coming to the mountain.

ENGER: What we are seeing is this moment turning into a movement for improving indoor air quality in schools and creating healthier learning spaces.

GODOY: A February analysis found school districts already have plans to spend more than $4 billion in federal relief funds for HVAC upgrades. While that's just a fraction of the spending needed to get schools in good condition, many agree it's a step in the right direction. Maria Godoy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.