One in five of the nation's 110,000 schools have reported unsatisfactory indoor air quality, according to studies by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and that explains why Churchville Elementary School teachers and staff are peering into corners, climbing on the roof and digging through the heating and cooling systems at their school to root out problems.
Chalk dust, asbestos, mold, dust mites and other pollutants commonly found in schools can trigger allergic reactions and asthma attacks that range from uncomfortable to deadly, researchers say.
Twice a year, Churchville Elementary teachers scour their classrooms with an air quality checklist on their clipboards. The checklist is provided by the EPA as part of its Tools for Schools air quality program.
The school's effort has paid off in more ways than one.
Churchville Elementary has twice won the American Lung Association's Excellence Award for its efforts to improve air quality, and it was cited for its success last week at the EPA's fifth annual Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Symposium in Washington.
Since Churchville Elementary began the Tools for Schools program in 2001, attitudes and behavior have changed at the school. Class pets have been banished. Air fresheners and perfume are out. Cleaning chemicals are labeled and kept in tidy janitorial closets.
The most important change happened outside the school. Exhaust from idling school buses once wafted into classrooms as drivers waited for students at the end of the school day. Teachers complained and the school banned idling buses. Drivers now wait with their engines turned off. The policy quickly spread to all public schools in Harford County.
"It was just common sense," said Charlie Taibi, transportation supervisor for Harford County public schools.
Elizabeth Cotsworth, director of the EPA Office of Radiation and Indoor Air, said that more than 10,000 schools have used the Tools for Schools kit since 1995. Because children spend so much of the day at school, the EPA has redoubled its focus on school air.
Gauging the results of the Tools for Schools program is difficult, but Cotsworth said anecdotal evidence points to fewer missed school days and fewer trips to the nurse at schools that use the air quality kit.
"The bottom line is when you have children who are healthy, they are performing well, attendance is up, their productivity and learning are improved," Cotsworth said.
Parents are also becoming knowledgeable about school air quality. Nancy Sander, president of Allergy and Asthma Network Mothers of Asthmatics, based in Fairfax, Va., said parents are demanding that schools make air quality improvements. But Sander said the fight has become easier since the importance of good air quality is now widely understood.
"There is no need to be a vigilante now," Sander said.
Parents have sued school districts over the quality of air in their children's schools. Teachers unions have also sued over poor air quality. Because staff has as much to gain as parents and students from improving air quality, Sander said there is little foot-dragging at most schools for inexpensive improvements.
Laura Magsamen, whose daughter, Jordan, is a fifth-grader at Churchill Elementary, is especially concerned about air quality at the school. Jordan suffers from cystic fibrosis, a disease that affects the respiratory system. Because the health of Jordan's lungs is one of the most important factors in her overall health, clean air is essential.
So far, Magsamen is satisfied with the effort to make sure the air is clean at Churchville Elementary.
"I feel like they take a pretty proactive stand on things and they are upfront with the parents," said Magsamen. "I appreciate that."
Teachers examine ceiling tiles, looking for discoloration that could point to water leaks and mold. They check windows, pipes and walls for condensation that can also cause mold. Custodians pull out heating and cooling system filters, and climb onto the roof of the 1933 building looking for leaks. They check air intakes to make sure bad air is not drawn into the building from pollution sources.
The custodians make easy fixes. Larger problems are handled by sending work orders to the Harford County schools maintenance division.
"This is a team effort," said Pat McCarthy, assistant principal and coordinator of the air quality team at Churchville Elementary. "We couldn't do this by ourselves."