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Healthy Spaces Podcast: Season 2, Episode 3 - Getting Smart about Schools

Schools are the heart of any community, and their excellence is depends on the health of the learning environment. Experts explain what needs to improve.

Schools are not only one of the most important areas of our built environment – they are a pillar for the communities they live in, and a foundation for our society.

In Episode 3 of our Healthy Spaces podcast series, I was joined by friend and colleague, Portia Mount, vice-president of Marketing at Trane Commercial. She and a team of experts from research, academia and education advocacy organizations teamed up in an education-focused Trane GetSmart series. I connected with Portia to learn more about what these experts expressed as the biggest obstacles - and opportunities - in education today. From the connection to student performance and air quality, to the use of public funding to uplift schools’ infrastructure and instructional performance.

"The state of our schools [in the United States] is mostly mediocre. (…) There's a whole tranche of probably about 12 million children who are attending schools in really very substandard conditions in terms of their ventilation, in terms of their educational supports, in terms of their water, in terms of just basic health and safety issues." — Mary Filardo, executive director of 21st Century School Fund

We have a long, long history, a deep, deep trove of research that allows us to definitively say that the condition of school facilities impacts things like absenteeism, retention, academic performance and these are things that if you ask any superintendent what's the goal, it's improving academic performance.

Rachel Hodgdon – CEO, International WELL Building Institute


Throughout the episode, we explore measures needed to ensure the optimum indoor environments for education, like air quality monitoring and assessing ventilation needs in each space, along the need to include the right stakeholders who have the power to influence these decisions.

“There are a couple of districts that are starting to do some kind of health planning across districts. So, trying to get school nurses, public health folks, social workers and other people with insights into population health within a school district and bring them together to try to target design solutions (…) to target some of the health issues that you might be seeing in a community.”  — Anisa Hemming, director of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council

There is still a lot to be done to address the poor environmental quality in schools across the United States – and the world - but our featured guests leave us with the confidence that with collaboration, public will and informed decision-making, there are steps we can take today to build healthier and more efficient learning spaces for students and staff.

Episode Guests

Portia Mount, vice-president for Marketing, Trane Commercial North America

Mary Filardo, executive director of 21st Century School Fund

Rachel Hodgdon, CEO, International WELL Building Institute

Dr. Rengie Chan, Research Scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Anisa Hemming, director of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council
 

Transcript

[00:00:00] Rasha Hasaneen: We're all too aware of the importance of indoor air quality at work and at home. But one place we sometimes neglect to think about is in our schools.

[00:00:11] Portia Mount: When you have schools that are in extreme states of disrepair, they don't have funding to make even the most basic upgrades, overall student performance suffers significantly.

[00:00:25] RASHA: So how do we ensure that our children are getting the best possible air quality in their place of learning?

[00:00:33] Portia: You really need, leaders on the ground who understand the community, understand the needs of the students and have the right relationship in order to be able to leverage the knowledge they need to do what's right for that particular school in that community.

[00:00:50] RASHA: That's Portia Mount, vice president of marketing for Trane Commercial at Trane Technologies, and host of our education focused GetSmart Series.

Throughout the GetSmart series, Portia and her guest experts have grappled some of the biggest issues in education, from the use of energy contracting to technical career pathways for students.

And with all that experience, I can't think of anyone else more qualified to be my co-host on today's episode as we discuss how schools can protect their students, create productive learning environments and prepare for a great school year.

I'm Rasha Hasaneen, and you're listening to Healthy Spaces with Trane Technologies, a series of conversations that explores the world of indoor environmental quality from the inside out.

Today we're actually going to talk about a space that I personally feel is one of the most important areas of the built environment, and really our society, and that's schools. And I'm really excited today to be joined by Portia Mount from our commercial HVAC business.

I know you recently hosted the GetSmart series, and I would love to just have you tell our listeners here a little bit about, the series and what you guys did.

[00:02:19] Portia: This was really just a terrific series. We interviewed a lot of experts in the K-12 space, and we talked about everything from the health of buildings, the impact of indoor air quality on student performance, really got into some of the nitty-gritty around the challenges happening in the public school space.

You know, Rasha, if you think about it, schools tend to be centers of our communities. We go there to vote, we go there to see community activities. Schools are the lifeblood of communities, and so one of the things that comes out of this series is, we need to be paying attention to what's going on in these buildings for our kids, and for their overall health and wellbeing and their overall performance. So, just a terrific honor to talk to some of the experts that we're going to talk about.

[00:03:25] Rasha: What we've been doing here in season two of the Healthy Spaces podcast is to focus on different indoor environments, and I'm super excited to be talking about this very critical type of indoor environment. Maybe you can give us just some highlights from the series and tell us what you've learned and what you heard as it relates to indoor air quality.

[00:03:46] Portia: So first of all, I think one of the things that I learned was that, you know, the state of schools overall is really poor. I was actually shocked, Rasha, at the state of disrepair of so many of our public schools, and that's primarily what we focused on. And the role that inequality plays in how well these school buildings perform. One of the things that we know is that education is a social enterprise and it depends on our buildings and the grounds where our staff and students and community come together. A strong economy depends on schools, and it depends on those schools to be able to educate kids and prepare them for the workforce. But when you have schools that are in extreme states of disrepair, they don't have funding to make even the most basic upgrades, overall student performance suffers significantly. And the really cool thing is there are some incredible people like Mary Filardo, who is the executive director of the 21st Century School Fund. And who, along with the International WELL Building Institute, her organization, puts out a state of schools report. And they really, go into some pretty deep detail about what's happening with schools.

[00:05:18] RASHA: And here's Mary, along with Rachel Hodgdon, of the WELL Building institute to explain more about the position most schools are in.

[00:05:28] Mary Filardo: Well, the state of our schools is mostly mediocre. There are some fabulous schools in the United States are public schools. And then there's a whole tranche of probably about 12 million children who are attending schools in really very substandard conditions in terms of their ventilation, in terms of their educational supports, in terms of their water, in terms of just basic health and safety issues. As well as the educational supports that they need to really compete in our economic world, in the future.

[00:06:02] Rachel Hodgdon: Well, I think that we have to understand just how critical our school facilities are in this moment. With COVID-19 still rearing its ugly head, what we know is that schools that were insufficient from an air quality perspective prior to the pandemic are downright dangerous in this moment. You know, we've learned a lot about this virus over the past year and a half, and we now understand that it's airborne. That's primarily the way that COVID-19 spreads. And that means that ventilation and filtration are key.

And as recently as 2019, we knew that 41% of districts in the United States needed to renew or upgrade their heating and cooling systems at least half of their schools. That's a real call to action for us. We're sending our kids back to school this fall, and we've really run out of time to make some of these critical improvements.

[00:07:02] Mary: These are very complex buildings and grounds. They serve tens and tens of millions of people on a daily basis. About 60 million Americans are in these school buildings on a daily basis. And they spend on average about $110 billion every year on their maintenance and their capital investments, so this is a massive part of our nation's infrastructure.

[00:07:32] Rasha: Those are staggering statistics, especially as it relates to HVAC systems and their role in creating these healthy learning environments for student. So let's talk a little bit more about that.

[00:07:40] Portia: I talked to several experts who talked about the relationship between the conditions of schools and the facilities and the performance of students. We know, for example, that, poor lighting, poor indoor air quality all have tremendous impacts on kids. I was really privileged to talk to Rachel Hodgdon at length about the implications of this gap and why it's so complicated.

[00:08:07] Rachel: One of the things that this year's report on the state of our schools does is highlight some of that research that makes the connection between the condition of school facilities and performance, and not just the performance of students, but the performance of teachers and staff as well. We have a long, long history, a deep, deep trove of research that allows us to definitively say that the condition of school facilities impacts things like absenteeism, retention, academic performance and these are things that if you ask any superintendent what's the goal, it's improving academic performance.

But oftentimes we fail to make that connection that the research really underscores, that a quality school facility creates prime conditions for optimized learning for students, and the kind of place that allows you to attract the best talent when it comes to teachers and staff. So, within the report, you'll find lots of facts and stats and great citations for some of that body of literature that really underscores that school facilities and learning are inextricably linked

Today we're starting to see the enormous payoff that comes with modernizing school facilities.

[00:09:35] Portia: I also had the chance to talk to Dr. Rengie Chan, who is with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. And she looked specifically at the correlation of ventilation and air quality and occupant health. In this case, we're talking about our kids in school buildings

[00:09:53] Rengie Chan: My group has been studying the effect and impact on ventilation and indoor air quality on occupants health for a long time. I think back in 2017, Phil Fisk was leading a group, and he published a paper called the ventilation problem in schools as a literature review. And there we look at the relationship between ventilation rates and student performance health symptoms. So often we ask students or teachers to fill out a health survey, so do you experience any symptoms when you're at school? And also the relationship between ventilation rate and illness absence? Across the board, we see some indication that these things are correlated.

When you have a under ventilated schools, your students can be not be learning as well, they're going to be experiencing health symptoms and, in some cases, may lead to more illness absence.

[00:10:49] Portia: As a data wonk, I love the research. Though, Rachel really brings it home on a very personal level by sharing some real-life examples that I think so many listeners can relate to, especially as a mom with kids at school.

[00:11:07] Rachel: I'll give you another example. My own mother. My mom worked in a neighboring county to Washington DC, Montgomery County schools. She was in one of those portable classrooms, at one point doing an evaluation of a student. And because my mom has spent decades working in sick buildings in school districts, she's a kind of a canary in a coal mine. So, she walked into this portable classroom and she immediately started having respiratory issues. She's like hacking and wheezing. And she went to the teacher and said, ‘I don't know what's going on in this classroom, but it's not good.’ And the teacher said, ‘I am so glad that you said something’ and she dragged my mother into the principal's office. It turns out that this teacher had been trying for months to get the attention of the administration to say I'm sick all the time, my kids are sick all of the time.

Because my mother's reaction was so immediate and so severe, it triggered the school principal to call in the district facilities officers to come and do some indoor air quality testing and sure enough, they found that that classroom was overrun with mold. And when they went back and looked at the attendance records for the kids in that class, they were off the charts in terms of kids missing school day in and day out, which is another one of those examples that underscores just how deeply disruptive a poor school facility can be to the academic experience or to continuity of instruction from a teacher.

There have been more than a handful of times when a parent comes with their child's inhaler in hand and says, because of this new school facility, my kid doesn't need this inhaler anymore. The effects are profound. And when one parent speaks up when one teacher speaks up, when one administrator makes this a big part of their platform, it can have, an incredible depth of impact.

[00:13:06] RASHA: Stories like this do so much more for bringing people's attention to the importance of our air quality than numbers and statistics ever could.

So how can parents, teachers and faculty actually do something about the environmental quality in schools?

I think we're really at an unprecedented point in this journey. We now have everyone's attention. And, and I think people are starting to understand how important indoor air quality is, not only to the health of the students and the staff, but also to the parents who want the best for their kids. Did you all talk about what we do to turn this into action?

[00:13:47] Portia: Absolutely. That was definitely part of the conversation, Rasha, as well as the challenges that schools face in acting on this information, as I said, it's really complex. And you overlay community politics on top of that and it is tough. And so we spent some time talking with Anisa Hemming from the Center For Green Schools, and she talked at length about the steps that they are doing to drive public will to create the need for change.

[00:14:18] Anisa Hemming: I think along the lines of opportunity, I mean, we rarely have the kind of attention that is currently being paid to our indoor environments at schools. I've never seen it in my 15 years in this field and it's an opportunity that I hope we can maximize to try to improve some of these indoor environments.

We've been raising alarm bells for years about the fact that air quality in schools is not up to the standard it should be to keep kids alert, help them be ready to learn, and keep them healthy. And this is an opportunity to do some of that work and I'm eager to make the most of it. And I think we can, because we have the technology and the knowledge to do what needs to be done. It's just a matter of sort of flexing that public will and making sure that, you know, the attention stays on the topic.

[00:15:17] RASHA: Schools haven't typically had their air quality questioned in the same way that public buildings or offices have.

But considering the amount of time our children spend in schools and how important those years in education are, it's imperative that we start to scrutinize the environmental quality in our places of learning as much as our places of work.

Anisa, Rengie and Mary explain what they think are the measures needed to ensure the very best indoor environments for education.

[00:15:45] Anisa Hemming: If you're not measuring you can't fix anything. So that's a really key point. There are a couple of districts that are starting to do some kind of health planning across districts, and we're encouraging this actually through a new pilot credit in LEED for health promotion process.

So trying to get, especially in a school district where you have health professionals, like school nurses, and you have sometimes public health folks and social workers and other people with insights into population health within a school district, and you actually bring them together to try to target design solutions within school building design and school building operation to target some of the health issues that you might be seeing in a community.

[00:16:40] Rengie: I think one that the challenge is probably we have a long list of things to do. So how do you pick and choose? You have different schools, each school have different problem. And I think the department of education have given pretty good guidance on the list of things that you can use ESSER funds to support. So that's good, but that's still a long list. And each school is going to have to make their own decision of how much is spent on all these ventilation and filtration and other building control types of investments, compared to other priorities as a school have.

But if we will look more narrowly within the ventilation filtration building controls, I would suggest schools start with the most vulnerable. So those are the classrooms that do not have any ventilation right now. You’ve got to do something. You got to either put in some filtration. And if you have classroom that already have HVAC system, then I would start with some assessment of all of them. Make sure that there is in fact adequate airflow. And also install CO2 sensor, might be another options for you to think about if you, you don't quite at the point of making a retrofits replacements, or some very capital heavy projects.

And then there comes the thinking about, if you, in fact, half the capacity, the manpower, the money to do a retrofit, can you push yourself a little bit more and avoid a like for like kind of replacement? Can you aim for higher efficiency? Is it a point in time where you get creative and you pull in a little bit more funding, so we can do a little bit more than just replacing the same thing with the same thing. So, getting more energy efficiency out of the new system that you're putting in.

[00:18:55] Mary: We have to make these places resilient. And we know that that's going to take modern design, modern engineering, you know, modern planning.

And so, we know we can do it, but we have to decide we have to have the public will, and then we need to dedicate the dollars to support that will.

[00:19:18] Rasha: So Portia, we talked a lot about the complexity of the policy landscape when it comes to school funding. That landscape is equally complex when it comes to decision-making. When it comes to building momentum, we know it often comes down to educating people on the issues. What are some of the knowledge gaps that were really highlighted by the experts in the GetSmart series?

[00:19:42] RASHA: Yeah, well, you know, I think first and foremost, it's facility management itself. We talked about at the beginning of this conversation that a lot of these schools are understaffed, and you have individuals making decisions about the school building that may or may not have all of the expertise. So really understanding how the school building, the school facility, needs to be managed is first and foremost.

You know most of the decision-makers in this conversation, historically they're academics, right? They're studying the science and the policy behind school funding. But you really need, leaders on the ground who understand the community, understand the needs of the students, and have the right relationships at the local and state level, in order to be able to leverage the knowledge they need to do what's right for that particular school in that community.

[00:20:18] RASHA: This disconnect between the academics making the discoveries about environmental quality and the facility managers in our schools is the biggest hurdle preventing students from learning in truly optimized spaces.

But this is just one gap of many. And here to talk more about those is Anisa Hemming.

[00:20:34] Anisa: Typically, that money and the people who are used to administering those grants and figuring out how to stay in the lines for federal grants, at school districts, they're not used to thinking about facilities. There’s a little bit of a gap in knowledge there, but also a comfort level gap, that we're noticing.   A lot of the folks who are planning for the use of the money or submitting the paperwork around the money, they're not used to doing stuff related to facilities. Because Department of Education dollars don't usually go to facilities, right? So, there's a knowledge gap there.

  There is also the top-level school district decision makers have almost always come up through the academic side of the house. So, the superintendent is probably a former principal or something along those lines. School board members often get involved because they care about education and the educational program of the schools. And so there's also not just a gap in knowledge, but also kind of a tendency to overlook facilities, by top level decision makers.

[00:21:45] RASHA: So, our school facilities need to be addressed and updated.

And if parents, teachers or school board members can educate the right people on the importance of air quality and get them to take notice, Anisa says that there's already funding available that could help pay for these much-needed improvements.

[00:22:00] Anisa: What we're noticing with COVID relief funding is construction and renovation and facilities work is absolutely allowable within this funding. The department of education has been very clear about that. But the people in our network related to facilities are not always being brought to the table for decision-making around that. So, there's a need for communities to advocate to their school decision makers that this is something they care about. There's also a need for our facilities staff around the country to be a little bit more vocal about what they need.

You can't do things that are going to need additional funding, you know, like staff. People don't want to hire staff with this COVID relief funding because they won't have funding to keep them on, right? So, there's a lot of like hiring temps and doing temporary programs and it feels very hard for school districts to figure out exactly how to use this one-time funding. Facilities is a great use of one-time funding because you can invest in things that, as Rengie was saying, are going to set you up for better results over time, like some hardening against some natural risks, some energy efficiency results. Then you can save money over time if you invest really wisely in equipment that's going to give you more efficiency with resources.

So, it’s a great opportunity to kind of invest the money one time money, and then try to realize gain over time that you can maybe put toward some of these other things like instructional technology and staff. It’s pretty perfect fit for facilities work actually.

[00:23:42] Rasha: We often close our podcast by asking our guests and in this particular case, my cohost, what one tip or a piece of advice they would give the listeners. Portia, what are one or two of the key takeaways from your conversations that you would want to punctuate with for our listeners?

[00:24:00] Portia: Sure. Well, so first and foremost, go and check out the state of our school's report because it really is a fascinating, it is a rich in data, it's highly readable though. Share it with your local administrators. I just think there is a wealth of knowledge there, so I really encourage people to go and download that.

And then the second thing of course is I want everyone to listen to the GetSmart series, which you can find on trane.com/GetSmart. I am proud that we, as a company, are really at the forefront of thinking about how we can do our fair share, our part, in helping student outcomes around indoor air quality.

And so we'd love for people to listen to that. And hey, tell us what you think. Because we love to hear your opinion. This is a really important topic for us all. And I appreciate the opportunity to be your co-host Rasha. Invite me back.

[00:24:52] RASHA: I want to give a huge thanks to Portia for being an amazing co-host today, and for expertly guiding us through the world of opportunity in schools.

You've been listening to Healthy Spaces with Trane Technologies. I'm Rasha Hasaneen.

For more information on our conversation with Portia Mount, see the show notes in your podcast app.

And if you want to learn more about the work being done in our schools - or if you just want to hear more from Portia and the experts on our show today, be sure to check out our GetSmart series over at Trane.com.

Join us next time when we'll be going even closer to home - in a conversation with experts about our homes, and the role they play in setting us up for success, each and every day.

Don't forget to follow us to hear new episodes.

Thanks for joining us.

We'll see you next time.

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