Back to school guide: 5 Ways good air quality helps students

School bells are about to ring, marking the start of another academic year. But beyond backpacks and school supplies, there's an invisible factor crucial to a productive school year: air quality. From kindergarten to college, the air students breathe significantly impacts their health and academic success. Clean air is not just a breath of fresh air—it's a game-changer for student wellness and performance.

Back to school advice

As we gear up for the new school year, let’s explore five powerful ways good air quality helps students thrive:

1. Clean air can reduce sick days

We know that many serious illnesses, including COVID-19, influenza, pneumonia, and pertussis, spread through the air.

Research has shown that the overall health of a young person and their academic performance are directly correlated (1). Of course, sick day absenteeism can lead to missed work and falling behind. But even when in the classroom, students in poorer health tend to underperform their peers.

One study looking at the association between health and educational achievement also identified a lack of motivation by those students who are in poor health as the major cause of their academic failings (2).

Improving the air quality in and out of the classroom can keep students healthier. Effective ventilation of indoor air and using high-quality true HyperHEPA air purifiers that trap airborne viruses and bacteria can reduce the risk of contracting and spreading serious illnesses.

2. Reduced respiratory issues, better learning

Asthma and student life

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America reports that more than 14 million school days are missed every year due to complications caused by asthma. A greater risk of contracting asthma has been connected to increased exposure to air pollution.

Children are especially vulnerable to respiratory damage caused by dirty air. Their lungs are still developing and their breathing rates, compared to their body weights, are higher than adults.

But asthma can emerge at any age, and students that go to a school closer to major air pollution sources like busy roads or factories are at greater risk of developing asthma or suffering an asthma attack.

Studies show that students with asthma score as much as 10 percent lower on their math and reading assignments when in the classroom on days that air pollution concentrations increase (3).

Allergies and academic performance

Allergic reactions to airborne contaminants can also impact academic performance.

Common allergens found inside schools include mold caused by dampness, dust created by deteriorating building materials, dust mites, and pet dander.

It has been discovered that mold alone can increase severe allergic reactions by up to 50% (4).

Besides triggering asthma attacks or acute allergic reactions that keep a student at home, allergens can reduce normal cognitive functioning at school. For example, a simple rise in pollen counts can significantly reduce the test scores of high school students with a pollen allergy (5).

3. Clean air helps enhance mental health

Exposure to air pollution has been linked to various psychological problems, from irritability to depression, and even schizophrenia (6).

Damage can start early in a person’s life. A 2019 study revealed that even short-term exposure to air pollution increased the risk of children up to 18-years-old being hospitalized for psychological issues like intense stress, sadness, or anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts and behavior (7).

Another large study saw that exposure to air pollution led to a 6% increase in depression, close to a 17% rise in bipolar disorder cases, and increases of up to 20% in the findings of personality disorder (8).

The rigors of academic life can be stressful in and of themselves; air quality impacts the likelihood and severity of serious psychological issues.

4. The link between air quality and concentration

Poor indoor air quality, especially higher levels of carbon dioxide, has been linked with a diminished ability to concentrate (9).

Many schools’ ventilation rates have been deemed to be below recommended levels (10). This is partially because newer schools are sometimes constructed as tightly sealed buildings with a lack of natural ventilation. Unfortunately, insufficient funding leaves some schools no choice but to reduce the operation of their HVAC systems and defer proper maintenance.

Sufficient classroom ventilation has been shown to create real-time improvement in academic performance as indicated by the number of students who pass and score higher on standardized tests when ventilation rates are increased (11). Students in classrooms with good air ventilation scored up to 15 points better on standardized tests (12).

Hyperactivity, one of the symptoms associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, contributes to a lack of concentration in students. This too has been linked to exposure to high concentrations of traffic-related air pollution early in life (13).

Other studies suggest that higher levels of indoor air pollution can cause perceptual disabilities and hearing impairment, both of which can decrease concentration.

5. Clean air boosts cognitive abilities

Evidence has shown that high levels of exposure to air pollution while a baby’s brain is developing, even while in the womb, increases that child’s risk of reduced cognitive abilities.

In one study, 5-year-olds whose mothers, during pregnancy, had above-average exposure to pollution, scored about four points lower on IQ tests than peers whose mothers had lower exposure to the same pollutants during pregnancy (14).

There is also research that shows a link between exposure to poor air quality in a classroom and a real-time loss of students’ ability to memorize and perform calculations (15).

To reduce the levels of pollutants in classrooms, many schools have incorporated room air purification systems.

Even if a student’s school environment has good air quality, their level of exposure to airborne pollutants at home has also been demonstrated to impact that student’s academic achievement. Those living close to heavy traffic were found to have much lower GPAs, even when factoring in other issues that influence school performance, than students who lived in areas with better air quality (16).

What can you do to improve air quality for a student?

Ensuring good air quality is crucial for a productive school experience—in and out of the classroom. We see that improved air quality can significantly reduce illnesses, alleviate respiratory issues, enhance mental health, improve concentration, and boost cognitive abilities. As we prepare for the new academic year, it’s essential to recognize that providing students with a clean air environment is as important as equipping them with the right school supplies.

Practical back to school advice

To ensure clean air is never lacking for your student, consider these steps:

The takeaway

With these tips in mind, take a deep breath and let’s start the new year with a little less anxiety and make this the most productive back-to-school yet.

Learning, like breathing, is something we will do through our entire lives. Let’s do our best to improve the air quality around us—from birth, through the school years, and into old age.

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