Prioritizing Health and Safety in Schools As the New School Year Begins

In the face of chronic underinvestment in school infrastructure, the push for healthy school facilities becomes even more critical to support student well-being and drive academic success
Sep 7, 2023 11:00 AM ET
Prioritizing Health and Safety in Schools as the New School Year Begins

As school-aged children and young adults in the United States and many other countries around the world head back to school, parents, teachers and administrators are increasingly keenly aware of the importance of school facilities in supporting student and staff health and well-being. For many, schools represent a safe haven, the center of the community where children learn, develop and grow. Yet, from outdated infrastructure to climate-change related extreme weather events such as wildfire smoke and heat waves that increase the incidence of indoor air pollution, much of the education sector is struggling to keep up with the requirements of operating and maintaining modern school facilities.

It is widely understood how critical the school years are to supporting academic needs, but students, teachers and staff also need educational facilities that support their physical, mental and emotional health. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “By the time a student graduates high school, they will have spent more than 15,000 hours in a school building, which is the second longest indoor exposure time after their home…This is a time of critical physiological, social, and emotional growth and development, which is susceptible to many indoor conditions including, indoor air pollution, mold, elevated noise levels, radon, asbestos, inadequate lighting and more.” These indoor conditions can not only affect student health, but have a significant impact on learning, too. A recent New York Times article highlighted that “decades of research have suggested that improving air quality also can raise academic performance, increase test scores, bolster attention and memory, and decrease absences due to illness or other factors.”

These concerns are magnified when considering the dire condition of school facilities. In 2021, IWBI collaborated with 21st Century School Fund and the National Council on School Facilities to develop and release the 2021 State of our Schools Report: America’s PK-12 Public School Facilities, which compiles and analyzes school district data regarding U.S. PK–12 public school facilities funding and draws attention to the massive underinvestment across the U.S. in funding efforts. The report also identifies solutions for all children, in every district, to attend healthier, safer and more sustainable schools that can provide the supportive learning environments and resilient facilities -- of which indoor air quality is a critical component.

The report projected that the United States alone faces a projected shortfall of a staggering $85 billion USD in school facility funding every year. Districts are spending about $110 billion every year on maintenance, operations and capital construction – but the educational facilities standards for good stewardship necessitates nearly $195 billion. This chronic underinvestment in PK-12 school facilities jeopardizes student health, hinders academic achievement and weakens our entire educational framework.

Policymakers are taking notice and are looking to improve their support for schools and districts to address this gap through a federal-state partnership for school infrastructure. Recently reintroduced in July 2023 and strongly supported by IWBI, the Rebuild America’s Schools Act of 2023 in the U.S. aims to “improve public school infrastructure and environments to ensure school facilities are safe, healthy, sustainable, and offer positive learning environments for all students” through a total of $130 billion in investments. As noted by IWBI President and CEO Rachel Hodgdon, although many schools are “literally falling apart…we can turn the tide.”

Alongside these policy-focused efforts, it continues to be important to understand how we can deliver school buildings that help protect the health and safety of the students, teachers and staff who walk through their doors every day. Published every three years, the next iteration of State of our Schools will be released in 2024. The 2024 report represents a signature opportunity to provide decision makers with better data and new analyses that prioritize health, education equity and resilience in public educational facilities planning, policy and budget. Over the last two years, since the 2021 report, there is a deepening awareness of the structural inequities in our nation’s public school facilities, by income and race. There is a better understanding of climate related vulnerabilities of our communities and schools. Finally, the shared trauma of a global pandemic has highlighted an array of health threats and hazards associated with the longstanding neglect of our public school facilities. Given this changing landscape, the need has never been more urgent to add to our understanding of the state of our schools and their impact on health and equity – and to take action to address our school facilities.

As states and school districts seek to lead on healthy schools, the WELL Standard is a practical framework that can be leveraged by educational institutions to help demonstrate health leadership and make school buildings safer, healthier and fit for learning. When implementing WELL strategies, educational institutions can capture data on building performance and human experience, and optimize space for health, productivity, creativity and collaboration over time. For leaders who value verified performance, prioritize risk management and want to make a highly visible commitment to health and well-being, WELL is an invaluable program. Nearly 2,200 school locations have already implemented WELL programs across 18 countries encompassing over 78 million square feet, as of August 2023.

In particular, the WELL Health-Safety Rating, a framework for driving health resilience into the center of organizational policies and operational plans through facility operations and management, has been prevalent in supporting the education sector. With over 60 evidence-based strategies from the WELL Standard, from operational policies and maintenance protocols to emergency plans, the WELL Health-Safety Rating serves as a roadmap for organizations to anticipate what’s around the corner and put necessary plans and protocols in place to build confidence and drive long-term resilience.

Jeff Platenberg, Assistant Superintendent, Facilities and Transportation Services at Fairfax County Public Schools, said of the WELL Health-Safety Rating: “The safety and well-being of our students and staff is our top priority. Ensuring that our buildings are optimized to provide a healthy learning and work environment is a critical part of that effort.”

Dr. John Rozzo, Superintendent, Upper St. Clair School District, also commented: “The health and safety of our students and staff, as well as others who use our school facilities, remain our top priority... the WELL Health-Safety seal is testament that we are sincere in our efforts to go above and beyond to provide the safest environment possible for teaching and learning.”

“Where our children learn matters, and access to safe, healthy and equitable learning environments should be a right, not a privilege. Amidst this school infrastructure crisis, the WELL Health-Safety Rating provides a preparedness solution that meets educational institutions where they are and provides them a way to navigate challenges of the moment and prepare for what’s to come,” said Hodgdon. “We are seeing school facility operators and administrative leaders around the world use the rating as a roadmap to make health, well-being and safety a best practice. Their commitments place the focus on where it should be – student and staff health and well-being – so that learning can take center stage.”

The rating is a tool to help schools start their WELL journey and continue their engagement at the portfolio level through an at-scale commitment. The WELL at scale program helps organizations advance a culture of health by applying WELL across multiple locations, gaining recognition for incremental improvements along the way.

KinderCare Learning Centers achieved the WELL Health-Safety Rating for its system of child care and early childhood education facilities. Achieving the rating is one way KinderCare is showing their dedication to the health and safety of their students, teachers and staff, and they have since expanded their commitment to health by pursuing WELL at scale.

Commenting on the importance of implementing the WELL Health-Safety Rating in an early years educational setting, Sarah Redgrave, VP of Operations at KinderCare, said, “...because we serve children when they are at a vulnerable age: where physical, social and emotional well-being will have a direct impact on a child’s development and growth. We want every child in our programs to have a safe and healthy place to learn and grow, so that they can develop the skills they need to build confidence for life. We also believe that by holding ourselves to these high standards of health and safety we will create a safer environment for our staff, which will in turn allow them to focus on what they do best, making a positive impact on the life of each child in their care.”

For more information, read how IWBI is “Supporting Healthier Schools” in our 2022 Annual Report: Delivering on our People-first Approach: Healthy Buildings, Organizations and Communities.

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