Bonus Points

Attention to Classroom Safety and Health Issues Can Lead to Improvements in Student Performance.

These days when we talk about school safety the conversation quickly goes to lockdowns, bullet-proof glass and dealing with violence. Previously the focus was on fire prevention. There is, however; another equally important category of school safety that gets far less conversation. Attention to environmental issues in the classroom accomplishes more than insuring a healthy atmosphere, there are additional benefits to student performance. Other than their homes, school buildings represent the space where all children spend the greatest percentage of their time indoors. School administrators must pay close attention to environmental factors that affect health and safety and also inhibit a child’s ability to learn.

Water Quality

Plumbing systems in school buildings constructed prior to 1986 may have lead solder joints that leach into drinking water presenting a health hazard to children. Children are particularly susceptible to the harmful effects of lead even at low exposure levels that can result in reduced IQ and lower potential for learning. Prolonged exposure can cause damage to the brain and central nervous system and also harm kidney function. This is a serious problem in schools throughout the country which has led several states to pass legislation requiring schools to test for the presence of lead in drinking water. In 2006 the EPA published “3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water in Schools, A Training, Testing and Taking Action Approach” and recently revised the manual in 2018. Many states adopt the publication by reference in their legislation to provide a clear testing protocol. The manual sets an action level at 15-parts-per-billion although it is clear that no amount of lead is safe for human health.

Thermal Comfort

According to a 2018 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “cumulative heat exposure inhibits cognitive skill development and school air conditioning can mitigate this effect.” Their research involved data from 10 million PSAT-takers measuring the temperature of school days in the year prior to taking the test. Regulating classroom temperature in most school districts is a daily challenge for district maintenance technicians. Seasonal shifts, failing equipment, IAQ issues, energy costs, complex control systems all contribute to whether or not, on any given day each classroom in every school maintains optimal temperature, humidity and fresh air ventilation. As HVAC systems have become more sophisticated, teachers have less control on temperature settings. They have even less control over fresh air ventilation which presents another critical factor on student’s health and a serious impact to the learning environment. Over the course of the day in a room loaded with 20-25 children, CO2 levels may reach levels in the afternoon that affect children’s ability to process information. Opening windows and doors is less of an option as in the past due to strengthened security, energy management and IAQ guidance. Facility managers should conduct CO2 monitoring and make certain mechanical systems that regulate fresh air intake are operating properly. 

Ergonomics

Let’s face it. The chairs and desks many of us used when we were in school were probably furthest thing from ergonomically correct for children. Out of an era of durability and cost being the primary factors for selecting classroom furniture, there obviously was very little concern about comfort. Unlike office buildings, schools have always been challenged by matching furniture size to the growing child. To be ergonomic, it is critical for furniture to properly match a child’s body size.  Through the study of ergonomic design we now recognize that how children are seated or otherwise physically accommodated in the learning space can have an impact on their capability to learn as well as having an impact on their long term health. We are seeing

Noise

Teacher’s may be the most adaptable people on the earth. Over time, they and their students accept a loud air handler above the ceiling that cycles on and off throughout the day or the 60 cycle hum created by multiple florescent fixtures with magnetic ballasts. Noise from building systems, technology and of course the occupants in a school building seriously impact the integrity of the learning environment. Attention to many of the factors that raise the noise level offer the teacher and students a foundation of silence to work from. School designers must consider the placement of classrooms in conjunction with high noise areas such as gymnasiums, playgrounds, dining areas, band and chorus. Placement of mechanical, electrical and technology equipment must also be considered. The American National Standards Institute released ANSI S12.60 in 2002, (updated in 2010) which sets acoustical goals specifically for classrooms. The standard deals specifically with background noise from building systems, reverberation limits, and acoustical treatments. 

Daylighting

In recent years, a move to make school buildings more energy efficient including innovative methods to make use of natural sunlight in classrooms in order to reduce the cost of artificial lighting. The human brain is equipped with a master clock that establishes “circadian rhythms” which determine our sleep patterns. The primary input to this part of the brain involves the reception of light through the eyes. Studies have shown the absence of full spectrum light, or natural daylight, disrupts the circadian rhythm that can have a detrimental effect on concentration, the ability to gather data, and cognitive performance. Architect, Mike Nicklas, with Innovative Design participated on a study in Johnston County, North Carolina to determine if test scores were impacted in schools with enhanced daylighting features.  He states, “We saw exactly what we predicted would occur but wanted to understand exactly why were students performing better and having better attendance. Ultimately we concluded that kids exposed to daylighting were getting more sleep at night.” Mr. Nicklas states, “A wonderful element of daylighting is that it isn’t static. Shifting light patterns can be stimulating for the child as a hidden benefit causing them to feel more connected to the environment.”

Volatile Organic Compounds

Anyone that attended school between the 1950’s and the 1970’s probably remembers the unmistakable scent of the ink used with mimeograph machines or perhaps some of the cleaning products that included fragrances. We have learned that many products including building materials, paints, solvents, inks, and cleansers contain volatile organic compounds that turn to a gas at or below room temperature. Most of them can be hazardous to human health, especially for children with allergies are breathing difficulties. As a result of sustainable building practices and availability of non-VOC or low-VOC products, the level of VOCs has been dramatically reduced in schools. One area of concern occurs with an increased use of air fresheners teachers bring to school to mask undesirable odors in the classroom. The Consumer Safety Product Commission has issued warnings concerning air fresheners, especially the popular plug-in variety that uses a heat source to emit scented chemicals into the air. Many of these products contain phthalates which may cause reproductive abnormalities. These products have also been found to contain formaldehyde, a carcinogen linked to diseases of the nose and throat.

The term In Loco Parentis, Latin for "in the place of a parent" refers to the legal responsibility of a person or organization to take on some of the functions and responsibilities of a parent. By the very nature of their position, school administrators and staff members assume responsibility for the safety and well-being of every single child during the school day as well as their academic performance.

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