Breathing easier: the crucial role of classroom ventilation

2 May 2024

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of good ventilation in classrooms has become glaringly evident. What once seemed like a mundane aspect of educational infrastructure has now become a focal point in ensuring the health and safety of students and teachers alike. And it’s not just viruses that ventilation helps keep in check but other pollutants including particulate matter (PM2.5), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), Radon gas and carbon dioxide (CO2). 

The importance of ventilation

Ventilation is the process of supplying fresh air and removing stale air from indoor spaces. In a classroom setting, proper ventilation plays a vital role in reducing the concentration of airborne pollutants, including viruses, bacteria, and allergens. Adequate ventilation not only helps prevent the spread of illnesses but also creates a more conducive learning environment by ensuring optimal air quality. CO2 levels particularly can rise very quickly in a classroom environment as it is produced by the occupants themselves. Without adding fresh air to the mix, CO2 negatively affects learning and causes drowsiness and headaches. 

The UK schools’ estate is largely ageing, and a high proportion of schools still rely on natural ventilation, however, many of these air bricks have been blocked to make buildings more airtight and energy efficient but leaving the buildings with poor ventilation. Other ageing schools may have added air conditioning over the years however, many of these systems recirculate stale air rather than adding fresh air to the mix. Even more recent school builds may have ventilation systems that are inadequate or incorrectly configured, however, these systems can usually be optimised or upgraded if needed. 

The role of air purifiers

While ventilation systems are essential, they may not always be present, especially in older school buildings and this is where air purifiers come into play. These devices work by filtering out contaminants from the air, including dust, pollen, mould spores, and even viruses. By incorporating air purifiers into classrooms, schools can enhance indoor air quality and provide an added layer of protection against airborne pathogens. It should be noted that air purifiers cannot filter CO2 from the air and so some form of ventilation is still required. If a school does not enjoy the benefits of mechanical ventilation, then windows should be opened during breaktimes to purge the room. 

Sadiq Khan's initiative

In the realm of public health and environmental sustainability, leaders like Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, have been at the forefront of promoting initiatives to improve air quality. Khan's Clean Air for Schools program is a testament to his commitment to ensuring that children have access to clean and healthy air while they learn. Through this initiative, Khan has been advocating for measures such as installing air purifiers in classrooms, reducing vehicle emissions near schools, and raising awareness about the importance of clean air. In February 2024, the Mayor announced plans to install air filters in 200 of the most polluted London schools. 

The impact on young lives

The quality of indoor air can have a significant impact on students' health, well-being, and academic performance. Poor indoor air quality has been linked to respiratory problems, allergies, and even cognitive impairment. By prioritising classroom ventilation and investing in air purifiers, schools can create a safer and more conducive learning environment for students, enabling them to thrive academically and socially. 

Challenges and solutions

Ideally schools should benefit from mechanical ventilation systems which can be optimised using AI assisted technology to ensure that rooms are well ventilated, the air students breathe is clean of pollutants and pathogens and the environment they learn in is kept at the ideal temperature. However, most UK schools are made up of old buildings that don’t benefit from mechanical ventilation and in many cases, especially when the buildings have been made more air tight to help retain heat, adequate ventilation is an ongoing problem. 

Despite the growing awareness of the importance of classroom ventilation, implementing effective ventilation systems and air purifiers in schools can pose challenges, particularly in terms of cost and infrastructure. However, with the support of government initiatives, community partnerships, and technological advancements, these challenges can be overcome. By prioritising the health and safety of students, educators, and staff, schools can make informed decisions and investments to improve indoor air quality. 

In conclusion, classroom ventilation and air purification have emerged as critical components of ensuring a safe and healthy learning environment, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Leaders like Sadiq Khan have championed initiatives to address these issues and promote clean air in schools. By recognising the importance of ventilation, investing in air purifiers where needed, and implementing comprehensive strategies, we can create learning environments that promote good health and wellbeing, where students can thrive.

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