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Are Southern California students and teachers breathing clean air?

Tina Andres hates the red light. And this time, it’s not even blinking. It’s just solid red, as in, change-the-filter-now red.

The air purifier in teacher Andres’ classroom at MacArthur Fundamental Intermediate School in Santa Ana was installed in 2021. But the first time the light went red no new filters could be found, a result of supply chain woes. Now, about two months after installing a replacement, the warning signal is back.

Andres, a sixth-grade math teacher who’s taught in the same class, Room 7, for 30 years, said the air problem isn’t just about COVID-19.

“We have mold issues,” she said. “There are issues like this all over the county. Some of these schools are old.

“Teachers just want to know that the air quality is good,” she added.



The issue isn’t trivial, or misunderstood. Studies have linked dirty air inside of schools — particularly in communities with dirty air outside of schools — to a variety of health conditions and learning delays. It’s also known that a proven, cost-effective way to clean up school air is to improve a school’s ventilation system.

California has been a leader in recognizing this. Even before COVID-19 prompted everybody to think about ventilation, California imposed rules aimed at making sure new school buildings offered clean air. And on Jan. 1, California became the first state to require every school, regardless of age, to assess and, if feasible, to upgrade their ventilation systems.

The mandate has come after billions of state and federal dollars, mostly related to the pandemic, were made available to schools to improve their air quality. Los Angeles Unified now spends about $20 million a year to inspect and maintain more than 115,000 air filtration systems.

Still, a new national study from the Environmental Law Institute suggests it isn’t enough. California, as with other states, has substantial room for improvement when it comes to making school air safe, the study found.

The study cites many of the issues also raised by Andres, as well as other teachers, parents and environmental advocates.

For starters, there’s no centralized agency to oversee school indoor air quality. State and local air quality districts focus on outdoor air, so questions about indoor air often bounce between various state departments and local agencies. School districts are left to inspect and police themselves.

Also, loopholes in the new state law allow many schools — particularly older campuses, which often serve the neediest students — to avoid meeting the new standards if they don’t have heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC systems, at all, or if their systems aren’t strong enough to push air through upgraded filters. A number of Southern California school districts reached for comment on this story, from Big Bear to Pomona to East Whitter, either didn’t respond or simply said they had no news to share about work to improve ventilation.

Meanwhile, international health groups are calling for indoor air rules even more strict than what’s called for in California’s new law. To get there, districts would need to boost ventilation and add tools, such as portable air purifiers, in all classrooms — something few have done.

Now, as funding and concern about COVID-19 fades, school plans to fix the problem are starting to fall by the wayside.

Some $50 million in federal funding that L.A. Unified School District budgeted for portable air purifiers a couple years ago has been reassigned, according to Rebecca Schenker, who has two kids in the district and helps lead a group called LAUSD Parents for Covid-Safe Schools. She hasn’t been able to find out how that money will now be spent.

Her fear is that, as the COVID-19 emergency declaration ends and people move on, the funding, equipment and knowledge gained over the past three years won’t translate into long-term efforts to clean up school air — despite ongoing problems with absenteeism and air pollution.

“The need to figure out how to move forward in this world, after the trauma of COVID and damage, is real,” Schenker said. “But I think we’re saying in our coalition that we can’t do that by forgetting the lessons we learned during the pandemic. And while we’re not in a pandemic mode, we know more about how to take care of our communities. And we know we have the tools.”

Long-standing need

While California has set standards for outdoor air quality since the late 1950s, public policy didn’t expand to include indoor air quality in earnest until the early 1990s. That’s when the Environmental Law Institute started studying classroom ventilation, said Tobie Bernstein, a senior attorney with the group and director of its Indoor Environments Program.

“There was considerable evidence of potential adverse impacts of poor ventilation and indoor air quality,” Bernstein said.

Students and teachers in schools with poor ventilation are more likely to miss school and report health issues related to respiratory and viral infections, asthma symptoms and airborne diseases such as chickenpox and influenza, according to research by Harvard’s Healthy Buildings program. Meanwhile, studies by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and others show that better ventilation in schools also leads to better academic performance.

When Southern California Gas distributed portable air purifiers to all classrooms within five miles of a massive leak at the company’s Aliso Canyon storage in 2015, Michael Gilraine, an economics professor at New York University, saw an opportunity. He launched a study comparing student achievement in schools that didn’t get air filters and those that did, and he found substantial improvements in math and English scores for students breathing cleaner air.

“The results indicate that air filter installation is a highly cost-effective policy to raise student achievement,” Gilraine’s study says. “And, given that underprivileged students attend schools in highly polluted areas, one that can reduce the pervasive test score gaps that plague public education.”

Much of Southern California is plagued by poor outdoor air quality throughout the year, from Inland Empire schools near heavily trafficked freeways to Los Angeles County schools near the busy ports to all schools near airports. When outdoor air quality gets particularly bad, air quality officials recommend keeping kids inside. But Heejung Jung, a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Riverside who studies air quality, has seen firsthand how problematic that is in schools without active ventilation systems.

Jung recalled measuring air quality of a classroom in Riverside some years back. Even with doors and windows closed, but no ventilation system, Jung said the concentration of harmful particles was 70% as high inside the classroom as it was outside.

Lower income school districts are most likely to have faulty, failing or nonexistent ventilation systems. At the same time, people of color are more likely to suffer from underlying health conditions, such as asthma, that make them more vulnerable to pollutants in their classrooms, turning ventilation into a social justice issue.

Though fixing school ventilation isn’t cheap, advocates believe the investment of a few dollars per student more than pays for itself.

Schenker cites studies that more than 100,000 absences in LAUSD each year are attributed to asthma symptoms. Since schools get paid based on student attendance, that’s costing the district upwards of $4 million a year, which health research suggests could be improved by improving ventilation. Another California study estimated that poor ventilation was linked to at least 3% of absences, which cost the state $33 million each year.

In 2019, such research prompted California to become the first state to require HVAC filters for all new school construction at a level known as MERV 13, with dense enough filtration to catch at least 75% of particles in the air as small as 1 micron, or about a tenth the size of a droplet of mist.

But in January 2020, researchers published a study in the journal Building and Environment that found that there were problems with even newly installed HVAC equipment in more than half of the classrooms they looked at. Theresa Pistochini, a co-author of the study who helps lead UC Davis’ Energy Efficiency Institute and Western Cooling Efficiency Center, said that while those numbers were very concerning to her team, it was initially tough to get traction because teachers and students weren’t recognizing the effects.

“When you’re in a building that’s underventilated, you can’t really tell,” she said.

Then came spring 2020.

The COVID-19 factor

As COVID-19 raged, and protection measures such as mask wearing and vaccinations became divisive, improving ventilation jumped out as relatively simple, non-intrusive way to significantly reduce the risk of transmission. Suddenly, the maintenance problems and other recommendations that Pistochini and her team had raised were getting attention.



The simplest way to improve air quality in classrooms, of course, is to open doors and windows. But there are classes across Southern California where that’s not possible. Also, everything from temperature to noise to public safety make the open-door-and-window policy less than ideal.

The second fix is to install stand-alone air cleaners, like the one in Andres’ class, in all classrooms and gathering spaces. Such devices can work, Pistochini said, because they can filter the smallest particles. But for portable air cleaners to be effective, they need to be sized right for the space, filters need to be regularly changed and they need to be turned on each day. That leaves a lot of room for user error.

That’s why the third fix is the one Pistochini focuses on — installing solid HVAC systems that bring in outdoor air, condition and filter it, and expel poor air out of the classroom.

There are schools in districts across Southern California, including in Torrance Unified and Westminster, that don’t have full HVAC systems in place. Westminster recently tapped a $76 million bond measure to start to tackle that issue. Manuel Cardoso, assistant superintendent for business services, said five of the district’s 16 schools now have new air HVAC systems, while nine others are nearly done or scheduled for similar upgrades in the summer. Two others, he said, have temporary HVAC systems.

For districts with existing HVAC systems, most had been running MERV 6 or 8 filters, which don’t work well against COVID-19 transmission. That’s why Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, last year introduced Assembly Bill 2232. The bill, which took effect Jan. 1, requires all California schools to evaluate their ventilation systems and upgrade to MERV 13 filtration if “feasible.” Otherwise, they have to install the highest MERV level filtration their systems can take.

While that law does give districts wiggle room to decide whether their systems can handle MERV 13 filtration, Pistochini said most HVAC systems can pivot to MERV 13.

But Jesse Chavarria, assistant superintendent of administrative services for Anaheim Elementary School District, said not only were MERV 13 hard to find at one point during the pandemic, he said they also didn’t work in older HVAC units in the district.

“In those situations, the law says we have to find ways to find the same air quality,” Chavarria said. “So we used three-ply filters and sprayed them with an antimicrobial agent used by hospitals.”

Orange Unified also is treating all its HVAC units, which have MERV 8 filters, with an antimicrobial solution — in addition to buying portable air purifiers with HEPA filters, said district spokeswoman Hanna Brake.

Paying for progress

While some districts already were working to upgrade their HVAC systems and filtration, both AB 2232 and the recent flood of state and federal funding for improvements kicked those efforts into high gear.

“Covid was a bad thing but getting the Covid funds did help out in terms of improving the ventilation systems,” said Chavarria, from the Anaheim Elementary district.

Most California schools now have access to a pool of money specifically designated for HVAC work. Through a program called CalSHAPE, created in 2020 by Assembly Bill 814, schools can apply for a share of $584 million in grants. To date, about $382 million has been doled out for ventilation projects, with applications for the latest round of funding open through March 31.

That’s on top of $190.5 billion in federal funds approved by Congress to help schools cope with the pandemic. The California Department of Education said that as of Feb. 15, school districts in the state were planning to use $1.6 billion of that money for 951 approved HVAC projects.

L.A. Unified installed MERV 13 filters across 80 million square feet of buildings and classrooms. At the onset of COVID-19, the district also programmed HVAC systems to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, even when heating or cooling is not required. And they used $2.4 million to buy 2,750 portable HEPA air-cleaning devices, which can be deployed during COVID-19 surges or if an HVAC system goes down.

Riverside Unified School District used ESSER funds to do HVAC replacement at two high schools, four middle schools and nine elementary schools, according to district spokesperson Diana Meza. The district also added MERV 13 filters in all classrooms and now changes them quarterly.

In Capistrano Unified, Orange County’s largest school district, spokesman Ryan Burris said ESSER funds were used to upgrade all HVAC systems to MERV 13 rated filters. In cases where ventilation still was not meeting minimum standards, he said the district purchased stand-alone units to supplement ventilation rates. The district also received CalSHAPE funds to assess HVAC systems at all sites and plans to apply for additional grant money through that program to replace systems that were found deficient.

San Bernardino City Unified School District used a combination of ESSER and district general funds to purchase HEPA filter units, assess HVAC systems and upgrade the HVAC filters, spokesperson Corina Borsuk said. As a result of those efforts, she said many of the district’s classrooms now exceed the international ventilation exchange rate guidelines.

“It’s not enough to just purchase equipment and leave it at that,” Borsuk said. “We want to make sure we are making a measurable difference for our students’ health and make sure that the investment of public funds is getting results.” So she said the district also contracted with an industrial hygienist to perform pre- and post-tests on air samples for all classrooms.

More work needed

Air sampling and circulation testing is key, according to Michael Bailey with the national parent group Indoor Air Care Advocates. When asked what they’re doing to improve air quality in schools, he said many districts focus on upgrades they’ve made to HVAC filtration or how many air purifiers they’ve added.

But, Bailey said, knowing that doesn’t indicate “how much clean air they’re providing.”

One way California is working on that is by requiring schools that receive money through CalSHAPE to install carbon dioxide monitors in all classrooms, which will alert staff and students if CO2 levels go above 1,100 parts per million. And if that happens more than once a week, the school will have to adjust ventilation rates. (The 2022 law, AB 2232, also requires new and altered school buildings to install CO2 monitors.)

Pistochini praised those efforts, since it gives teachers and students and parents hard data. Otherwise, districts are left to police themselves.

“What’s at stake here is exposure to respiratory infectious disease, exposure to indoor chemical sources, and exposure to outdoor pollution. And children are our most sensitive population. So if there’s ever a place we’re gonna get this right, let’s do it in a school and through a third-party inspection system.”

Other states already do that. West Virginia, for example, hires HVAC technicians to conduct inspections, per the Environmental Law Institute report. And if we can have regular inspections for every restaurant in the state, Pistochini said surely we can do the same for schools.

At Santa Ana Unified, teacher Andres said she and her colleagues want to see more information from the district.

“I want to see regular testing and reports of air quality given to teachers about their rooms, and we want some assurances that these air purifiers are working and that they’re going to be regularly maintained,” said Andres, a member of the school’s safety committee.

Otherwise, she said, “There’s this big huge thing in your room that’s worthless.”

Source: Orange County Register

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