Pencil cases are crammed with new biros and markers, sensible shoes have been bought, and lunch boxes are on the kitchen worktop ready to be filled with nutritious lunches and the odd chocolate bar. Yes, it is the start of a new school term.
During the holidays, parents are constantly encouraging their children to stop playing on their computers and get out into the fresh air. It is therefore odd how little attention is paid to the air quality in the school environment, where children spend so much time. Does the air in schools contribute to a better learning environment or detract from children’s efforts to pay attention?
Summer heat and pollen cause problems for pupils
In the UK, revision for exams takes place just as the temperatures are revving up for the summer. An early heat wave makes for torpor in the classroom at the very point when pupils need to be most engaged. In schools without air conditioning, the only control measure is to open windows – if they open; in many newer schools, they do not.
Even in older buildings, where windows can be opened, this may simply let in air that is hotter than the air already in the classroom if there is no breeze. Since spring and summer are the times when grass in the school grounds is being cut – and increasingly this is done with a noisy strimmer, drowning out the teacher – the windows must be closed again. In any case, an open window when pollen is high can be a recipe for time off school for children who suffer from hay fever.
Air conditioning can give pupils a quiet room, cooled to the appropriate temperature, with adjustments within the teacher’s control. The filtered air that air conditioning provides can greatly reduce the amount of pollen, dust and allergens in the classroom environment, improving the health of the pupils who are made miserable by streaming eyes and sneezing.
Air conditioning can kill viruses
In winter, schools run their boilers to heat the classrooms. Unfortunately, this has the side effect of drying out the air in the classrooms – the drier the air, the more viruses like it. Viruses can float about happily for hours in dry air, resulting in more viral infections and more children taking time off school.
Strangely enough – even in wet weather, when the air is losing moisture in the form of rain – the air gets drier in terms of what we are breathing. The BBC discussed this phenomenon on its website, noting that water vapour seems to deactivate viruses in the air. The article quotes a researcher at the Mayo Clinic who says that running an air humidifier for an hour in a school building can get rid of about 30 per cent of the airborne viruses in the environment.
Again, air conditioning filters trap bacteria and viruses. As air conditioning changes the air in the classroom and the school building generally, it is replacing air that has been coughed and sneezed into with clean, filtered air.
This alone can have a marked effect on concentration levels, meaning that more schools should be considering an air conditioning system as part of the drive to improve pupil performance.