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Asthma, Air Quality and Absenteeism: What’s the Connection?

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The weather’s getting warmer as Spring approaches, and while the flowers in your garden may be coming back to life, your students may be catching not only spring fever but possibly something worse.

Every student anxiously awaits spring break, but other school absences can be detrimental to the learning process. In fact, while the majority of kids will miss at least a handful of school days every year, a 2015 study estimates that 5 to 7.5 million American students miss about one month of school each year.

Much of this can be tied back to improperly cleaned school facilities. After all, children spend nearly a third of every day in a school building, and unsanitary conditions and improper ventilation can cause a host of maladies—which can lead to multiple absences.

The Main Culprit

Between snotty noses and uncovered coughs, kids are notorious for spreading their cold and flu bugs among everyone in class. Yet, it turns out that asthma is the number one chronic illness among children and adolescents in the United States, and it’s the leading cause of missed school days among children ages 5 to 17.

In fact, the National Institutes of Health estimates nearly 1 in 11 children – a total of about 7 million kids – suffer from asthma. And the symptoms and attacks associated with the illness can drastically affect learning and classroom participation.

According to the EPA, school buildings are home to a number of environmental asthma triggers, including respiratory viruses; cockroach body parts and secretions; mold; dust mites; animal dander; and secondhand smoke. To make matters worse, schools have a higher density of occupants than an average office building – as much as four times – and schools are notorious for temperature and ventilation issues, usually due to inadequate design or a series of renovations over time.

John Lyons, a former education facilities planning manager for the U.S. Department of Education, elaborates on the issue:

“Not all children suffer the same way when air inside a classroom becomes unhealthy or marginally so; yet, children as a group are considered most vulnerable to environmental contaminants because they have higher breathing and metabolic rates than adults and less fully formed biological defense mechanisms.”

While asthma can lead to serious health issues, it also can greatly diminish academic performance even in mild cases. And research shows the more severe the illness, the larger the drop in test scores.

Improve Your School’s ‘IAQ’

Although asthma is challenging, you can still improve your school environment to reduce the disease’s effect on absenteeism. As you develop your school asthma management program, be sure to establish an indoor air quality (IAQ) team composed of not only custodial and maintenance staff, but also school nurses, teachers, and even parents or interested students.

The NIH recommends to include the following in your plan:

  • A routine schedule of cleaning and maintenance
  • Moisture control and mold remediation
  • Regular HVAC maintenance
  • Pest management services
  • A switch to low-toxicity cleaning materials
  • Reduction of environmental triggers, like exposure to exhaust from idling buses, secondhand smoke, etc.
  • Also, stay apprised of your air quality each morning on the local news. On those days with high pollen, try to keep the windows closed to reduce the impact on susceptible students.

Our community schools are committed to putting all children on a fast track to success. And with a little extra effort to ensure a thoroughly clean facility, we’ll all be able to breathe a little easier.

Dave Harvey is the president and CEO of SG360, a facility services company specializing in janitorial, facilities management, restoration services, and inventory management. How are you reducing asthma risk in your schools? Share your thoughts on our Facebook page.