The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about an increased focus on public health, particularly in school settings. From social distancing to testing regimes, education leaders are making serious changes to ensure that schools are safe for students, staff, and teachers. As the school experience continues to be reinvented, research points to an overlooked but potentially critical factor when thinking about reopening: air quality. While we have known for some time about the negative effects of air pollution on child health, recent evidence indicates that pollution also has detrimental effects on student learning. In turn, these relationships suggest the potential for some highly cost-effective interventions to raise student performance—and keep kids safer during the pandemic.

To date, most research has linked pollution to student learning using variation in outdoor air pollution. Researchers (see here and here) have documented significant declines in test scores when students take tests on days with high levels of particulate pollution. Another study compared students attending schools downwind relative to upwind of highways and found that increased air pollution from being downwind lowered test scores and raised behavioral incidents and absences. Similarly, in a recent working paper, a co-author and I use year-to-year variation in power production combined with wind direction to show that pollution from coal-fired power plants lower students’ test scores.

Several recent papers have been able to link indoor air quality to reduced cognitive performance. Research from chess tournaments found that a player’s probability of making an erroneous chess move (as determined by a chess engine) increased when particulate matter at the tournament venue was higher. An economist at the London School of Economics also linked indoor air quality to test performance. To do so, he collected air particulate readings in exam rooms at a university in London. He found that exam rooms at the university varied considerably in terms of air quality, and that students performed worse when they were assigned to exam rooms with higher levels of air pollution.

Read the full article about clean air in classrooms by Michael Gilraine at Brookings.