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Can Cleaner Classroom Air Help Kids Do Better at School?

Patricia Fabian (left), a BU School of Public Health environmental health researcher, with Katherine Walsh, who leads Boston Public Schools’ sustainability efforts

In a collaborative project with Boston Public Schools, a BU environmental health researcher is studying ways to improve indoor air quality in classrooms

When caregivers meet with teachers, they want all the details on how their children are doing in school: Are they making friends? What subjects do they need a little extra help with? Where are they excelling? But they’re probably not asking about something that could be having an outsized impact on their kids’ education: How’s the classroom air quality?

Boston University environmental health researcher Patricia Fabian has studied indoor air quality for more than 20 years and says the better the air in a school, the better kids perform: improved ventilation has been associated with reduced absences due to illness and higher scores on math and reading tests. Now, a new research collaboration between Fabian and Boston Public Schools (BPS) could lead the way in helping schools improve their indoor air quality.

Since 2022, Fabian has been working with the school district to study the quality of air in the city’s classrooms, leveraging sensors that were installed in more than 4,400 classrooms through $6.7 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds.

Boston Public Schools used federal coronavirus relief funding to install air quality sensors in thousands of classrooms. BU’s Patricia Fabian is using the data they generate to help the district improve student and staff health. Photo courtesy of SPH

Fabian says there are relatively few standards for indoor air quality, despite a growing body of evidence to suggest that pollutant levels indoors may be significantly higherthan outdoors. But the pandemic has reshuffled priorities, as the airborne transmission of COVID-19 called attention to the safety of enclosed, shared spaces and generated increased interest in, and funding for, projects to implement or improve heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems in aging public buildings, such as schools.

“Fifty million children in the US attend school every day in grades K through 12,” says Fabian, a BU School of Public Health associate professor of environmental health. “Many of us spend years inside school buildings during a period of life marked by rapid growth and development. This is a key time when we can really make a difference.”

Fabian began work with BPS during a recent sabbatical, launching a pilot study to improve understanding of indoor air quality, thermal comfort, energy use in classrooms, and the impact of SARS-CoV-2 engineering controls. The project has been conducted in collaboration with BPS’ Sustainability, Energy, and Environment Program.

BPS’ sensors, operational since late 2021, measure and record six parameters—carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, temperature, relative humidity, and two types of inhalable particulate matter—every minute of the day, 365 days a year. The data are then shared in near real time to a public dashboard.

“[This] is a really groundbreaking, one-of-a-kind dataset,” says Fabian, who is an associate director at the BU Institute for Global Sustainability and also affiliated with SPH’s Center for Climate and Health. “[BPS] can use it to make adjustments to their systems and operations, or to find out when there are problems like a carbon monoxide leak, but they are resource-constrained to take the billions of data points generated every year and use them to support grant applications, decisions, and policies. That is where this partnership comes in.”

Educating the Community, Reducing Health Disparities

With support from computing and data resources at BU—Information Services & TechnologyResearch Computing Services, and SPH’s Biostatistics and Epidemiology Data Analytics Center—Fabian transferred nearly three years of classroom sensor records into a usable research database. Optimizing the database to run queries in minutes rather than hours, implementing quality control algorithms, and connecting multiple school datasets were important objectives of the pilot study, Fabian says. Another was the creation of a fact sheet to educate the broader BPS community—including teachers, parents, and students—about the utility of the sensors in their classrooms.

Watch Fabian and Walsh discuss their one-of-a-kind project and how they hope it will drive change and improve student and teacher health. Video by Nick Gooler

The pilot study was supported by funding from BU’s Initiative on Cities and from an Established Investigator Innovation Award from idea hub, SPH’s innovation accelerator, and paved the way for Fabian to seek larger grants and expand the partnership’s portfolio of research. From identifying policies that would reduce asthma triggers in classrooms to pinpointing modifications that would make old school buildings more climate resilient and energy efficient, Fabian says she’s writing proposals for studies intended to support BPS’ decision-making, engage the broader BPS community, and reduce environmental health disparities. The data have also been used by students across BU for their own research projects.

“We have billions of data points with so much potential for improving the indoor environment and student and staff health, while advancing sustainability,” says Katherine Walsh, BPS’ program director of sustainability, energy, and environment and Fabian’s colleague on much of the research.

Global Impact

Since Fabian and Walsh first forged their research partnership, they have presented at professional and academic conferences across the US and Europe and advised school stakeholders as far away as New Zealand. In 2022, Fabian attended a White House summit on improving indoor air quality, which resulted in the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge, a pledge BPS informed and signed. The following year, BPS was named a Green Ribbon School District Sustainability Awardee by the US Department of Education and awarded Best in Class for Energy Efficiency Plus Health by the US Department of Energy’s Efficient and Healthy Schools Campaign.

According to Walsh, Fabian and her team at BU have been instrumental in helping BPS prioritize operational improvements, pursue investments in indoor environmental quality, such as new HVAC systems, and communicate these efforts to the BPS community. Other school districts, government and public health officials, researchers, and advocates from all over the world—even a major airport—have all sought BPS’ advice on how to implement similar indoor air quality monitoring programs in their buildings, she says.

“Patricia’s expertise is helping us champion this nexus globally, but our sustainability, energy, and environment team’s number one priority will always be local—applying the research to benefit our Boston Public Schools community,” says Walsh. “Patricia fully understands and promotes this critical focus, which is just another reason we are grateful for who she is and how she shows up as a researcher, expert, and partner.”

Although BPS has taken significant strides to improve school air quality and update school buildings, the effects of these efforts can be difficult to discern, says Fabian. She anticipates their ongoing research partnership will help the district to critically evaluate past and future interventions, advocate for needed changes and funding, and, ultimately, determine the best course of action to promote the health of both children and staff in classrooms across the US.

This story was originally published by Boston University on March 7, 2024.