TL;DR — Air quality is a significant issue on school campuses because it not only affects student, teacher, and staff health, but is also especially damaging to the developing organs of young children. Exposure to air pollution can negatively impact student performance, attendance, and cognitive development. Fortunately, many schools and districts have recognized the severity of these air pollution impacts and implemented systems that consider current air quality levels when determining what kinds of outdoor activities are appropriate. Local governments and school districts such as the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) have also taken active steps to establish high-resolution air quality monitoring networks in and around school campuses to collect neighborhood-level data and make air quality data accessible to the public to protect student and faculty health.

Air quality monitoring at schools

As we increasingly recognize just how significantly air pollution affects human health — especially for vulnerable populations such as children — many schools and campuses are implementing air quality monitoring to take stock of air pollution levels and minimize exposure.

The importance of outdoor air quality

Outdoor air quality levels are of concern for students, teachers, and staff at schools and campuses because of the significant ways that outdoor air pollution affects human health.

The USEPA measures six criteria pollutants under the Clean Air Act, which are those of highest concern when it comes to outdoor air quality. The pollutants are:

  • Particulate matter
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Lead
  • Nitrogen dioxide
  • Ozone
  • Sulfur dioxide

Poor outdoor air quality severely impacts human health and can be especially damaging to young children — cumulative exposure over time can lead to lasting impacts. Air pollution exposure has been linked to cardiovascular disease, neurological impacts, worsened asthma, gastrointestinal diseases, and diabetes, among several other conditions.

Read our blog here to learn more about all the ways that exposure to poor air quality impacts the human body.

Student and staff exposure to outdoor air pollution

When students, faculty, and staff are exposed to poor air quality on school campuses, they face a variety of consequences. And unfortunately, because schools tend to be situated near major roads and have their hours coinciding with periods of high traffic, students and staff tend to be exposed to outdoor emissions.

Though everyone is harmed by poor air quality, children are especially vulnerable to these negative consequences because their organs are still developing and they have a lower ability to deal with toxic compounds. Research shows that air pollution exposure is associated with slower rates of cognitive development and mental decline in children as well as decreases in student performance.

One study looking at PM2.5 and ozone levels in Salt Lake City, Utah found that even slightly higher levels of air pollution were associated with more student absences — and, consequently, lost school revenue, productivity, and economic burden for families totaling $426,000 for one district in Salt Lake City.

Especially in the face of increasingly frequent and severe wildfires, like those in the western US in recent years, agencies like the California Department of Education have established guidelines to help districts decide when to modify or cancel school events in accordance with poor air quality.

The guidelines attached to this message are intended to advance local conversations between school districts, public health officers, air districts, and the community, and provide educational leaders with the data they need to make informed decisions when their communities are inundated with wildfire smoke”

— California Department of Education
The California Department of Education’s air quality guidelines make recommendations for appropriate outdoor activities and potential restrictions that should be made when air quality is poor in order to protect student and faculty health. (Image source: California Department of Education)

How to set standards and monitor outdoor air quality

Air quality guidelines for schools and campuses, such as those discussed above from the California Department of Education, are set in alignment with knowledge from health researchers as well as best practices for mitigating the effects of human exposure to air pollution.

Other authorities on the topic have similar information about protecting children during outdoor activities, such as in the Air Quality and Outdoor Activity Guidance for Schools guidelines from AirNow, which links the current Air Quality Index (AQI) to appropriate outdoor activity.

AirNow’s Outdoor Activity Guidance links AQI levels to the health of the air and corresponding alterations to outdoor activities that should be made to reduce harmful exposure on school campuses, especially considering those students and staff with existing conditions such as asthma. (Image source: AirNow)

Air quality monitoring in the campus environment

In order to effectively monitor air quality at a school, it is important to place air quality monitors at different points across the campus or district to capture granular changes in air quality.

There are a variety of major pollutant sources on campuses that may impact students and staff, such as child pickup lines where cars may idle and cause heightened levels, so it is important to consider both these potential hotspots as well as average air quality levels across the campus.

The US EPA advises that air quality monitors should be placed in areas that represent average exposure to air pollution levels and within the typical breathing zone height, between 3 to 6 feet off the ground.

It is also important to have a number of different sampling points in and around a school campus. Because air quality levels can change quickly between different areas, having many measurement points helps form a more detailed and complete picture of air pollution levels in the area and the exposure risk for students and staff.

The Los Angeles Unified School District’s Know Your Air air quality monitoring network

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has established the Know Your Air Network, which uses a network of 200 low-cost sensors placed at or near every school in the district to capture neighborhood-level air quality data.

LAUSD’s Know Your Air network uses a grid-based system to ensure that low-cost sensor deployment is distributed across the district and allows parents, students, and teachers to access high-resolution air quality data in their specific neighborhood. (Image source: LAUSD)

The LAUSD network gives parents, students, and other interested parties access to the network’s data, helping to inform decision-making about appropriate outdoor activities and increase public awareness about air pollution exposure levels.

Learn more about LAUSD’s Know Your Air network here, which covers over 710 square miles and provides over 700,000 students with access to information about the air that they are breathing.

Bringing clean air to campuses

Interested in learning more about establishing an air quality monitoring network on your campus, enabling access to real-time air quality monitoring data and protecting your students, staff, and community? Learn more about our Ambient Air Pollution Monitoring for School Districts and Campuses here.