Sick Buildings in K-12 Schools

Breathing Easy

Many people who attend schools have reported experiencing symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome (SBS). SBS is a condition that can cause acute symptoms, including headaches, fatigue, coughing, tightness in the chest, and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. If someone is only briefly exposed to SBS, their symptoms may improve once they leave the school environment. However, long-term exposure to indoor pollutants that cause SBS can result in lasting symptoms. EBTRON airflow measurement solutions can create healthier learning environments for students and educators alike. Say goodbye to Sick Building Syndrome and hello to fresh, clean air.

Promote high performing schools

Improve student health

Reduce contaminants & pollutants

According to the EPA, over 57 million students and employees attend US schools daily. Despite efforts to improve indoor air quality, schools still have many unhealthy conditions.

It is important to note that children are more vulnerable to poor Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) due to their rapid breathing rate and still-developing organs. Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) in schools can cause recurring absenteeism and a decline in academic performance for students, financially affecting both parents and school systems. Schools can proactively address SBS concerns and prioritize the well-being of everyone within their walls—take a step towards healthier, more productive learning spaces.


Buildings can become sick due to poor Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) or Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) caused by various circumstances. IAQ focuses on air pollutants, whereas IEQ includes pollutants as well as temperature, humidity, acoustics, and lighting. Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is a term that defines a building with conditions leading to reoccurring acute symptoms. These symptoms are often caused by low ventilation rates and the accumulation of indoor pollutants, which may not originate within the building but can still affect indoor air quality. A direct relationship exists between ventilation, filtration, and the airflow within the building to the location and the amount of pollutants.

Multiple contaminants can cause various symptoms, and individuals may react differently to one or more contaminants. Moreover, symptoms may occur in only one location of a school, and if the source is not identified and corrective actions are not taken, there is the potential for it to spread further to other locations. The airflow within the building can determine the pathway of the pollutant.

Temperature and humidity also affect an individual’s comfort and may stress the body or create conditions where the contaminant thrives. Low humidity conditions may impact the respiratory system’s defense mechanism, and the ideal relative humidity for a healthy building is between 40-60% RH. Higher RH supports mold development and growth, whereas lower RH enhances the ability of a virus to survive. Research shows that influenza can thrive in low RH environments. School flu has been known to spread quickly and has similarities to the spread of COVID-19.

The contaminants causing SBS may not be out of the ordinary for a school. However, the impact on the occupants is enhanced if the ventilation rates are low. It’s vital to note that yesterday’s ventilation rates may not meet today’s needs due to societal and technological evolutions introducing new products with more components. These new products tend to increase the off-gassing of byproducts into the indoor space, which can negatively impact indoor air quality. Additionally, more time is spent indoors than in previous generations, which increases exposure to many contaminants.


It is suggested that schools may have higher rates of Sick Building Syndrome due to under-ventilation, which affects all building occupants including students, teachers, and other school professionals. A study conducted in Finland revealed that student perception of indoor air quality (IAQ) was linked to teacher sick leave. Sick leave was more significant when the IAQ was consistently poor; however, it decreased when IAQ improved. In New York, teachers self-reported classroom-related IAQ concerns that correlated to reported symptoms of sinus problems (16.8%), headache (15.0%), allergies/congestion (14.8%), and throat irritation (14.6%).

Salaries and benefits are the primary expense in schools, and it is typical for schools to be funded according to the number of attending students. Student absenteeism counts against this funding, making it crucial for schools to minimize student and teacher absenteeism. A study conducted in California found that increasing under-ventilation rates to the minimum standard would result in a 3.4% improvement in student attendance. The additional funding for attending students was estimated to be eight times the increased energy cost. Moreover, doubling the minimum standard ventilation rate was estimated to reduce absenteeism by 11-17%. Another study conducted in Texas found that doubling the ventilation rate in each classroom would result in one less school flu case per classroom, leading to positive financial outcomes.

It is essential to provide the correct amount of ventilation in schools to benefit student performance and the health of all school occupants. Enhancing ventilation rates beyond minimums can significantly contribute to achieving higher-performing schools that have fewer absent days. Ventilation should be viewed as an investment rather than an expense. Instead of trying to save pennies using strategies such as demand control ventilation (DCV), additional investment can reap several more rewards.


Proper ventilation is essential for maintaining a healthy and high-performing school. It is crucial to maintain minimum ventilation rates, proper airflow paths, and building pressurization to minimize the potential for Sick Building Syndrome (SBS). Not only does enhanced ventilation protect against the flu and other viruses, but it also creates a more conducive learning environment. However, treating the school building as a dynamic system is essential. Simply opening a damper or window will not guarantee good ventilation. Every change has a cause and effect, and it is necessary to actively monitor and control these changes to prevent the occurrence of SBS. While airflow control alone cannot prevent pollutants, it is essential for maintaining healthy building conditions.

Additional Resources Related to Ventilation for Healthy Schools

The Lancet COVID-19 Commission

In addition to decreased airborne infectious disease transmission, research shows that ventilation and air cleaning improvements are likely to lead to improved academic performance, fewer missed school days for students, higher scores on cognitive function tests, and many benefits for teachers including decreased respiratory symptoms, increased teacher retention, and improved morale.

Safe Work, Safe School, and Safe Travel

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

The available research indicates that increased classroom ventilation rates are associated with reduced student absence.

Building Ventilation

Environmental Protection Agency

The health and comfort of students and teachers are among the many factors that contribute to learning and productivity in the classroom, which in turn affect performance and achievement. A healthy, comfortable environment is an investment in your students and staff.

Take Action to Improve Indoor Air Quality in Schools

ESSER and the American Rescue Plan Act

The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) and the American Rescue Plan Act represent crucial opportunities for Local Education Agencies (LEAs) to allocate funds for enhancing the indoor environments of schools. These funds are earmarked for general improvements, repairs, and upgrades and extend to critical areas like mechanical ventilation and control systems. By directing resources toward these vital components, schools can take significant steps to fortify indoor air quality and, in doing so, contribute to the broader fight against asthma.

One valuable avenue to achieve these ventilation enhancements is deploying advanced technology, such as EBTRON airflow measurement devices. EBTRON’s state-of-the-art solutions empower schools to monitor and regulate airflow precisely, ensuring ventilation systems operate at peak efficiency. These devices play a pivotal role in maintaining optimal indoor air quality, which is paramount in the battle against asthma.

Quality of the Outdoor and Indoor Environment

Read more about ESSER and the American Rescue Plan Act.

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