COVID-19 has changed the way we understand school building ventilation and its importance in keeping us safe from viruses and bacteria in the air. The pandemic has motivated many school leaders to invest in improvements to ventilation systems, but the benefits of investing in a safe learning environment extend far beyond protecting children from the coronavirus. The evidence I present below suggests that pollution exposure is not only a factor in student academic outcomes but also a major driver of inequality in outcomes between wealthier and lower-income children, and between white and nonwhite children.

Why is it so important to invest in school infrastructure now? There is evidence that school ventilation protects children from contracting COVID-19 and other viruses in schools. Research suggests that COVID-19 spreads in schools in situations where there are high case rates in the surrounding community, and children can still catch COVID-19 in school buildings that are not properly ventilated.

I recently released a study (with Kathryn Johnson) showing that higher air pollution can make people more likely to get sick with and die from COVID-19. Because air pollution harms the immune system, it can increase the likelihood of infection from airborne diseases. It also can lead existing cases of COVID-19 to become more severe by harming the immune systems of infected people. We used the variation in pollution caused by a rollback of environmental enforcement during the pandemic to estimate the effects of increased pollution on county-level COVID-19 deaths and cases. We find that counties with more Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) sites (local factories or federal plants that emit harmful classes of pollution) saw an 11.8% increase in air pollution on average following the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) rollback of enforcement, compared to counties with fewer TRI sites. We also find that these policy-induced increases in air pollution are associated with a 53% increase in cases and a 10.6% increase in deaths from COVID-19.

Read the full article about investing in school infrastructure by Claudia Persico at Brookings.