Want to improve your school’s air and involve students?

Now’s your chance!

By Dorothy Wigmore  

A chance to learn. A chance to improve school air.  

Those are the goals of a grant-funded project involving Rutgers University and the Healthy Schools Now (HSN) campaign—so far. Now they’re looking for schools, staff and students to join them. 

“We want to increase the awareness of the importance of indoor air quality among kids and teachers,” says Jose Guillermo Cedeno Laurent, an assistant professor in the university’s Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute (EOHSI). He’s also involved with its Center for Environmental Exposures and Disease (CEED).  

Students are in classrooms for hours every day, with teachers and support professionals, says HSN organizer Nikki Baker. HSN is a broad coalition of 80-plus organizations—including NJEA—dedicated to ensuring all students and staff learn and work in healthy and safe conditions. 

“It’s important to get students involved in what indoor air quality means for them and their learning spaces,” Baker says. “They’re our future. We want them to have some type of ownership over things that are going on and an understanding about the processes.” 

The learning opportunity lines up with New Jersey’s 2022 requirement that school curricula deal with climate change and its impact—which should include air quality. The topic is particularly timely in light of the many wildfires across North America last summer and their impact on both outdoor and indoor air quality. 

Community volunteers assemble a Corsi-Rosenthal box. 

Where did the ideas come from? 

Baker is on the Rutger’s CEED Community Advisory Board.  

“The collaboration with CEED has been very cool,” she says. After an environmental justice outing, she suggested school indoor air is a related topic. 

“It’s not something radically different to what others have been doing,” Cedeno explains. “Include information in the STEM curriculum about how to measure, then how to process the data from sensors for current conditions in the schools. Then, to complete things, if we find a problem, how to give them a solution.” 

The conditions to be assessed include temperature, relative humidity, mold, particles in the air, lighting and maybe noise. Rutgers will provide the measuring devices, likely in a convenient compact container. 

HSN and Rutgers hope to find 20 schools to participate. There’s a presentation for those interested.  

Corsi-Rosenthal boxes are one solution 

Solutions include do-it-yourself air cleaners—Corsi-Rosenthal (C-R) boxes. They remove everything from viruses (including SARS-CoV-2 behind still-present COVID-19) and pollen to mold, dust and other airborne particles. For two years, people around the world have built them for schools, offices, homes and other places. 

“The idea is to get a sample of different schools across the state and get their students involved in part of the research and making the Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, Baker explains. “Have Rutgers—with teachers or after-school co-ordinators—teach them how to record their own data and analyze it and build the air cleaners with supplies from the university.” 

Studies show the boxes clean the air at least as well, if not better, than more expensive commercial units. Made with a box fan and four furnace MERV-13 filters, it takes less than a half-hour to make them with duct tape and the fan box cardboard.  

Still, they can be improved.  

“What would happen if we include a layer of activated charcoal into these devices?” Cedeno asks. Others have done it, but there is little data about the effects. “I think there’s enough interest to do it as a scientific or citizen science project.” 

“Noise is a big issue too,” he adds. “We have heard from school districts that put HEPA-grade filters in every single classroom. And they’re turned off because of the noise. Then there’s no benefit.” 

To deal with that, some people are making the air cleaners with multiple computer fans instead of a box fan. But they are not capable of the box fans’ multiple speeds. Dealing with the noise and control issues is a little further down the road, although Cedeno knows a Princeton High School student group that is working on them. 

What can health and safety committees do? 

Indoor air quality (IAQ) is a huge concern for schools, even with the state’s IAQ standard.  

Many NJEA health and safety committees have used the standard to deal with mold or construction hazards. Among other things, it sets limits on carbon dioxide (a fresh air indicator), temperature and some hazardous airborne chemicals, and requires maintenance and other prevention activities, a plan and a designated person to deal with it all. It applies whether or not the building has a proper ventilation system. However, it only applies to staff, not students.  

Healthy air involves more and affects everyone in the school. It offers a chance for committees and union locals to work with parent groups, students, academics and others concerned about school conditions. 

Dorothy Wigmore is a long-time health and safety specialist and New Jersey Work Environment Council consultant. She has worked in Canada, the U.S. and Mozambique, focusing on prevention and worker participation to solve job-related hazards.  

A to-do list for local health and safety committees 

  • Send a note to Nikki Baker at nbaker@njwec.org or Cedeno at memo.cedeno@rutgers.edu to learn about the project. 
  • Use what’s learned to advocate for your schools to join the project, linking it to local experiences, the IAQ standard and other protections that prevent COVID-19 outbreaks already starting to increase in schools and other settings. 
  • Support NJEA members participating in the project, including evaluating the effect of improved air quality on students and staff. 
  • Use the project to introduce students to health and safety issues. 
  • Incorporate the project results in other IAQ efforts. 
  • Report results to NJEA’s statewide health and safety committee. 
  • Consider how to use the results in bargaining. 

References and resources