Air Quality at Schools – A Holistic Approach

Air pollution is a prevalent issue that has severely impacted the health and wellbeing of schools in certain regions around the world. Although most people are mildly aware of the harm they cause, it is difficult to implement action in communities that have acclimated to the pollution.

Air pollution is said to be a risk and a disturbance.

It is a risk to students as they are particularly vulnerable to health implications such as respiratory illnesses. The same applies to teachers and staff members, as many would prefer to move away from polluted locations as it is detrimental to their health as well. Families would understandably make the same consideration to protect them, slowly impeding the growth of schools in the region. Air pollution can also disturb students’ learning environment, and be especially harmful to students who are exposed to pollution while performing physical activities outside of the school. Parents will also be concerned about their children’s health when they go to school, causing disturbances on their part as well.

Often times, schools and educational institutions consider air quality investments as a cost factor. They may experience resistance to change as it is perceived as a burden that requires them to commit to significant changes to their already established systems. However, there have been many schools that made the decision to take their first steps in caring for the health of their students and staff. Schools that have successfully dealt with severe levels of air pollution implemented three of the following holistic approaches: awareness, education, and community. By diving deeper into these approaches, you can understand the various actions you can take to improve the wellbeing of the people in your institute.

1. Awareness and Transparency Builds Trust

When the health and safety of children are on the line, communication between their parents and schools is paramount. Schools often update students and parents on the conditions in school passively, using empty phrases such as “We highly prioritize your child’s health.” without informing them about the environmental conditions or actions they claim to take to remedy these hazards.

With the decline of air quality brought upon by numerous sources of pollution worldwide, more and more schools recognize the importance of maintaining air quality and are beginning to make significant investments to mitigate it. Some schools even went the extra mile to communicate with parents via email to provide them with advanced reports on the school’s air quality. Opening active communication with parents ensures that schools remain accountable for caring for their student’s health. Furthermore, this level of transparency eases any worries that parents may have.

There are many ways you could actively communicate with not just parents, but everyone who is a part of your institution. Our highest recommendation would be to establish an Air Quality Committee that consists of principals, a selection of motivated teachers, parents, and students. By bringing together representatives for each group of people, they would be able to convey the difficulties and concerns that have been expressed by each group. Regular meetings would allow them to do so, as well as sharing ideas and suggestions that they may have to resolve the problem. Each representative would then be able to spread awareness about matters such as the health implications of air pollution and how their proposed suggestions would be an effective solution. By organizing this committee, the whole network would remain attentive to the implications of air pollution and become more welcoming to the proposed changes. 

2. Educational Opportunity

On top of the schools’ established curriculum, it is our responsibility to educate students and the community on the issues that are personally affecting them. Students can become detached from the material that they learn if it has no immediate relation to their daily lives. However if your school is suffering from increasing air pollution levels, it can become a great opportunity for educators to incorporate interactive, hands-on learning for all grade levels.

Integrate it into the Curriculum

Many online curriculum modules have been made to provide teachers with the teaching materials needed to educate students about air pollution. Curriculums such as It’s Our Air can be implemented into the classrooms as it includes class activities and videos that teach students about air quality, prediction, and monitoring techniques. Furthermore, students and teachers could also create and conduct creative experiments to measure air pollution. This encourages students to learn more about science and technology as well as conducting experiments and writing research papers.

Initiate After-school Activities

Extracurriculars are a great way to squeeze in learning activities that may not be possible with schools that have strict curriculums. An option is to encourage and sponsor student-led clubs to promote activities such as building air quality meters and purifiers in a fun and relaxed environment. This way, students would be able to exercise their interest in air quality without any obligations to turn in assignments or study for tests. Learning about air quality would become something of personal interest and this would also allow them to have creative freedom on other activities as well. This may include spreading awareness about air pollution, organizing events in school to display the things they made or having presentations to spread awareness about local pollution sources. The ideas are endless, and it is up to schools to provide them with the funds and guidance to make it possible.

Organize Field Trips

Field trips are a fantastic way to show students instead of telling them. The most suggested places to go are fields and forests where crops are burnt. From this, students would be able to see the scale at which crops are being burnt or how traffic in certain places exacerbates air quality. Of course, it is preferable to go to such areas when farmers are not burning the vegetation or after a forest fire to witness the destruction and pollution caused as well as ensure the safety of students and staff. An interesting thought would be to arrange field trips before and after the crops are burnt during slash-and-burn seasons. Taking pictures of the area before and after these time periods would truly demonstrate the destructive scale of such practices.

Other areas may include companies that produce face masks, non-profit organizations or even hospitals where they could meet representatives who can give them real-world insight about pollution. For example, touring companies that manufacture face masks can give them an idea of the extent to which people all around the world need face masks to protect themselves from pollution. Non-profit organizations (such as Clean Air Coalition or Clean Air Asia) could show them what they are doing to mitigate air pollution, and what students could learn from them to do the same. Hospitals can invite doctors or nurses to speak to students about respiratory illnesses and the rate at which people are admitted into hospitals each year because of the worsening air conditions.

Host STEAM Week

STEAM week (which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) is a fun and exciting way for students to create and present their projects to their parents, teachers, and students of all grades. In most schools that host STEAM week, students are often paired with the teacher that would be able to best assist them in the project they would like to undertake. For example, if a student would like to display a project which demonstrates chemical experiments that are used to detect air pollutants, Chemistry or Environmental Systems teachers would be best suited to guide the process of their project. Similar to extracurricular activities, this would allow students to have fun and make creative projects.

It is exciting to have them anticipate STEAM week and work on their project alongside everyone else as well as giving them a sense of pride for what they have made when presented. A STEAM week is also a wonderful medium where students could become curious and ask their friends and teachers about the different experiments they are using and the techniques they are using to achieve them. By promoting active discussions, students would be able to become more aware of the environmental issues that inflict the world and actively seek solutions beyond the school curriculum to do so.

Organize Student Camps

Student camps are an excellent way for schools to encourage air quality initiatives outside of school semesters. Similar to STEAM week and extracurriculars, it would encourage students to have fun while learning about the importance of air quality. It is a great opportunity for schools to invite experts and even include students from other schools. This would not only attract more students to your school but would also give students fun and meaningful memories, a medium for them to make new friends and promote a cause that they believe in outside of school hours.

Green Supercamp is an example of the collaboration between the Supercamp non-profit organisation which teaches students academic and life skills and the renowned Green School from Bali, Indonesia to encourage students to become green innovators and advocates for sustainability. The combination of these two organizations resulted in a synergized camp that teaches students about how to communicate effectively, perform well in school and leadership skills while promoting the importance of their environment from the setting of Green School as well as forming new friendships and unforgettable experiences.

Organize Air Quality Fundraisers and Support Community Outreach Programs

Organizing fundraisers are a fun way for them to exercise effective altruism by effectively managing their costs and revenue. With the support of schools and even the local community, they could sell items such as plants, reusable coffee cups, and tote bags. Artistic students could create unique prints that could be printed on to the products sold to promote the cause for clean air. Business-oriented students can take the role of managing their funds whereas science students may organize the marketing, spreading awareness to shoppers about maintaining their air quality and how their funds are being contributed to support the cause. It would also allow students to understand how non-profit organizations operate and how they manage the funds and donations that they obtain.

Furthermore, students could create online social media posts about the fundraiser and link them to their fundraiser using websites such as GoFundMe to raise money for the cause they are advocating for. Last year, popular online YouTuber, Mr Beast ambitiously raised over 20 million trees using the #TeamTrees hashtag for the Arbor Day Foundation. This example could serve as an inspiration to young students at a smaller scale who are adept at social media to support causes they believe in such as air pollution.

Host Parent Workshops and Roundtables

Roundtables would be a way for parents to get involved as well. Schools can encourage this by providing a classroom or study space where parents can come in to make weekly discussions. Some topics for discussion may include explaining and discussing the school’s AQI policies, holiday planning to work around heavy smoke seasons, discuss health impacts and how to make their houses safe for pollution.

An example of this would be District 186’s Family and Community Engagement (FACE) program in the US. The community encourages parent involvement in school’s roundtables to support each other in how they could share ideas and support each other to help empower their children. However, they also discuss fiscal responsibilities and how to plan and manage the facilities that their children and provided with. Members would also be able to voice their issues and concerns with school-related issues and cultivate learning environments. By meeting regularly and recording the topics discussed, they can stay organized while keeping their community and schools accountable for the safety and learning of their children.

3. Community Outreach

Schools could also commit to sustainability practices to care for your school’s air by increasing their energy efficiency, installing air pressure systems and air purifiers or using vehicles that do not emit air pollutants. Although mitigation efforts such as air purifiers are proved to have substantial benefits in improving the air quality of school classrooms, schools should also attempt to eliminate the main sources of pollution. Taking these extra steps would require immense dedication to the improvement of not only your school’s air but the air of the overall community.

By gathering support from the community (which could involve parents, children, community and business leaders) they may be willing to work together to make proposed changes to improve their environment. Changes can be proposed to local non-profit organizations, government departments, local city representatives, health and education authorities. Expressing the people’s need to maintain their air quality to those of higher power would allow them to take the appropriate actions to mitigate air pollution. Such actions include the funding of research for air pollution removal or mitigation strategies, setting standards and regulations for maintaining the community’s air quality and providing the financial support for health and medical services and performing environmental hazard assessments or interventions. Giving your school and the community a way to be proactive and influence change, they will be more willing to promote the maintenance of the quality of their air as a connected group.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has a comprehensive guide on how to achieve these three elements. It is a highly recommended read for schools who are committed to making sustainable changes.

Integrating Awareness, Education, and Community into a Holistic Synergy

The three elements complement and strengthen each other, creating a holistic synergy for your school and community. By establishing open communication channels between the school, parents, students and the local community, schools can play an important role in improving the local air quality for everyone. As an educational institution that teaches students about how the world works, they can continue to educate others by spreading awareness on the issue. Reaching out to influence the opinions, mindset, and attitudes of the wider network is key to making meaningful changes particularly in improving air quality and the state of our environment.

Engaging students and other groups in fun and interactive activities would allow them to propagate the message to others. Having them vouch for causes they believe in develops traits such as leadership, critical thinking, and communication. Therefore, schools that apply these elements do not merely support students who succeed academically but also nurture future leaders that care for the environment and the world.

If you approach these elements in a consistent and focused method, they will create interdependencies that effectively reinforce each other. For example, reinforcing education within a community increases the awareness of various groups of people which is difficult to achieve individually. Once the community’s change in attitudes is recognized, it would lead to more air quality activities that would have a positive impact on the school’s education. These actions would initiate a self-reinforcing cycle which would also allow your school to be renowned as a leading school on air quality within your local community, and even globally!