How to Battle Respiratory Allergies in K–12 Schools

Facilities managers can help school districts reduce allergens by taking eight simple actions.

Facilities Management, Health and Wellness, K-12 School Safety, School Maintenance

As a facilities manager, you’ve likely already taken steps to address food allergy concerns. But what about respiratory allergies? Runny noses, sneezing fits and itchy eyes are distracting and uncomfortable for both students and teachers. 

Respiratory allergies are even more common than food allergies, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In 2016, about 6 percent of children had food allergies, while 7.5 percent had hay fever and 10 percent had respiratory allergies. The same substances that trigger allergies also worsen asthma, which affects 8 percent of children and can lead to life-threatening attacks. 

Here are eight steps a facilities manager can take to reduce allergens in their K–12 schools.

1. Attack dust.

Dust can cause both respiratory and skin reactions, and it’s often in ample supply in schools. Provide resources that make it easier for teachers and staff to reduce clutter wherever possible. For instance, make trash and recycling bins easily accessible, and consider shelving books in closed cases. Also, provide tips to the cleaning staff about the importance of regularly dusting desks and common areas. 

2. Prevent mold growth.

Respond to plumbing leaks and the resulting damage immediately, and call a district-approved contractor if needed to remove damaged drywall or ceiling tiles. Keep windows closed to keep mold spores outside and rely on air-conditioning in warm weather. Maintain indoor humidity between 30 percent and 60 percent. 

3. Advise against classroom pets.

This might not seem like something a facilities manager needs to worry about, but overseeing classroom cleaning needs and school air quality definitely are your purview. Encourage teachers not to add pets to their rooms. Hamsters, guinea pigs and other critters can aggravate allergies because of their dander and droppings. For class pets that have already moved in, make sure the cages are not placed near air ducts. Also suggest that teachers encourage nonallergic students to help clean cages frequently. 

4. Upgrade your HVAC filtration.

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends air filters have a spot rating between 35 percent and 80 percent or a minimum efficiency rating value (MERV) between 8 and 13. Filters and other components should be replaced or cleaned on schedule, according to manufacturer specifications. Bring in an HVAC engineer for an assessment if it’s been a while since the system has been inspected. 

5. Switch to products without volatile organic compounds.

Certain solids and liquids emit VOCs as gases; concentrations of VOCs are consistently higher indoors than outdoors and may cause allergy-like reactions to the nose, throat and skin. VOCs can be found in carpet, paint, air fresheners and cleaning chemicals. Use eco-friendly, VOC-free building materials and cleaners whenever possible. 

6. Limit carpet and upholstered furniture.

Carpeting and upholstered furniture, such as a cozy chair in a reading corner, can trap allergens. If you’re undergoing a renovation, think about other flooring options and toss the plush chairs and bean bags. 

7. Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter.

High-efficiency, particulate air filters are effective at trapping pollen, dander and dust mites. Frequent vacuuming also will reduce allergens; you’ll want to vacuum high-traffic areas daily. 

8. Control pests.

A study of 284 students in the Northeast found that 99.5 percent of samples taken from dust in the children’s schools tested positive for mouse allergen, which worsened asthma symptoms. Likewise, cockroaches are present in some schools and can exacerbate allergies. Use covered trash cans for all food waste and direct custodians to pay extra attention to the cafeteria when cleaning. 

Using these tips, you can help the people in your school learn and teach in a healthier and more comfortable environment. And you might save money on tissues, too.