Children sitting in a classroom, looking attentive and facing forward.
Children sitting in a classroom, looking attentive and facing forward.
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Can air quality cause absenteeism?

Chronic absenteeism has no single cause. But air quality may be one of the most sinister causes as it’s both invisible and pervasive.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent (about 90 hours or 18 days of class) of school during the year.

It’s a growing problem.1 And there’s no sign that it’s declining, despite district and government incentives aimed at getting students in their seats.2,3,4

Chronic absenteeism has no single cause. But air quality may be one of the most sinister causes as it’s both invisible and pervasive.

A 2001 study linked both PM and ground-level ozone directly to students missing class due to respiratory illnesses, including asthma. When ozone concentrations rose by 20 parts per billion (ppb), school absences due to respiratory illness increased by an average of 83 percent.5

When ozone concentrations rise, school absences related to respiratory illness increased by an average of 83%.

A 2017 study suggests that, even if they don’t miss school, students with asthma don’t perform as well in class when pollutant levels increase. According to the study, students with asthma score 1-2 percent lower on their math and reading assignments when PM counts are high. Their scores drop as much as 10 percent when ozone levels rise.6

What does air quality have to do with absenteeism?

Poor air quality doesn’t affect all students with asthma equally. The 2001 study of ozone-related absences also found that ozone disproportionately hurt communities with lower long-term PM levels, causing absences due to respiratory illness to spike by 224 percent. Communities with higher long-term PM levels, which largely includes lower-income neighborhoods, only experienced a 38-percent increase in absences.

The underlying reality behind this difference? Poor communities suffer from poorer air quality than more affluent areas do. As a result, absences due to asthma and other respiratory conditions are more common, so pollutant increases don’t have as drastic an effect.

But this means that the impact of poor air quality on chronic absenteeism in poverty-stricken areas is much more ubiquitous.

The more students in a school who qualify for free lunch, an indicator of low family income, the more likely that school is to report poor Indoor Air Quality (IAQ).

In addition to being exposed to poor air quality in their neighborhoods, students living in poverty are more likely to attend schools with poor air quality. For example, the more students in a school who qualify for free lunch, an indicator of low family income, the more likely that school is to report poor Indoor Air Quality (IAQ).7 These same schools are much more likely to contain facilities that are outdated or in poor condition, including HVAC and ventilation systems whose disrepair contributes to poor classroom air quality, triggering asthma at higher overall rates.8,9

What can I do to make sure my child doesn’t fall behind?

Missing school days leads to consequences beyond just falling behind on homework. Research shows that students who miss a lot of school due to asthma are at a higher risk of:

  • Repeating classes10
  • Disengaging from their peer groups11
  • Dropping out of school altogether12

But you can help keep your child’s asthma symptoms from hindering their success.

First, develop an asthma action plan.13

Managing your child’s asthma symptoms quickly and effectively after they flare up is crucial. Symptoms can quickly become severe enough to keep your child out of school. Work with your doctor to create a plan that’s easy to execute when you first notice asthma symptoms. Then, share your action plan with everyone in your child’s life. Teachers, friends and other parents should all be able to enact this plan so that your child is safe wherever they go.

Also, make sure you follow your doctor’s orders. Medical treatment, which may include inhalers and medication, is vital to alleviating asthma symptoms. Follow all instructions your doctor gives you. Don’t use any home remedies or dietary changes for asthma without asking your doctor first.

Next, make environmental and lifestyle changes to reduce the frequency and severity of symptoms:

  • Monitor your Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). AirVisual Pro by IQAir lets you monitor pollutants in your indoor and outdoor air so that you know exactly when air quality is bad. Encourage your school to set up air quality monitors, too. This way, teachers can take appropriate action to increase time indoors when air quality is bad outside.
  • Avoid asthma triggers. Take precautions to help reduce flare-ups and the severity of symptoms:
  • Get involved at school. Many schools haven’t upgraded their facilities in decades. Join your school’s parent-teacher association (PTA) or school board to get involved in improving your school’s air quality. Encourage your school to install ultra-quiet standalone air purifiers, such as the CleanZone® SL. These can help mitigate poor IAQ in classrooms caused by outdated HVAC systems. Installing high-efficiency HVAC filters in existing school HVAC systems can also help reduce classroom pollutants by at least 90 percent.
  • Use an asthma air purifier at home to reduce airborne triggers. The HealthPro Plus® by IQAir is the #1-rated air purifier for asthma. Its four-stage advanced filtration system filters 99.5% of particles and gases down to 0.003 microns from the air. This includes asthma triggers like dust, pet dander, and mold spores. Fewer triggers mean fewer symptoms and, most likely, less time spent out of the classroom.

Poor air quality in classrooms is a problem for all students, whether or not they have asthma. But poor air quality can have far more overwhelming consequences beyond the classroom for students with asthma.

Increasing your school’s awareness of air quality and influencing school policies doesn’t just help students with asthma show up to class more often. It helps them stay on track to graduate high school, get into college, and live more meaningful lives as their classroom becomes less of an obstacle and more of an opportunity for success.

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RESOURCES

[1] Jacob BA, et al. (2017). Chronic absenteeism: An old problem in search of new answers.
https://www.brookings.edu/research/chronic-absenteeism-an-old-problem-in-search-of-new-answers/

[2] Absences add up: New chronic absenteeism campaign works to get kids to class, and to graduation. (2016).
https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/02/24/absences-add-new-chronic-absenteeism-campaign-works-get-kids-class-and-graduation

[3] Chronic absenteeism in the nation’s schools. (2016).
https://ed.gov/datastory/chronicabsenteeism.html

[4] 4 percent of schools contain half of all chronically absent. (2016).
http://education.jhu.edu/2016/09/4-percent-schools-contain-half-chronically-absent/

[5] Gilliland FD, et al. (2001). The effects of ambient air pollution on school absenteeism due to respiratory illness.
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11138819

[6] Marcotte DE. (2017). Something in the air? Air quality and children’s educational outcomes.
DOI: 10.1016/j.econedurev.2016.12.003

[7] Schneider M. (2002). Do school facilities affect academic outcomes?
http://www.ncef.org/pubs/outcomes.pdf

[8] Condition of America’s public school facilities: 2012-13. (2014).
https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2014/2014022.pdf

[9] Indoor air quality: Governing board actions for creating healthy school environments. (2008).
https://www.csba.org/GovernanceAndPolicyResources/DistrictPolicyServices/~/media/CSBA/Files/GovernanceResources/PolicyNews_Briefs/StudentHealth/Asthma/2008_07_PolicyBrief_IndoorAirQuality.ashx

[10] Research brief: Chronic absenteeism. (2012).
http://www.utahdataalliance.org/downloads/ChronicAbsenteeismResearchBrief.pdf

[11] Double jeopardy: How third-grade reading skills and poverty influence high school graduation. (2012).
http://www.aecf.org/m/resourcedoc/AECF-DoubleJeopardy-2012-Full.pdf

[12] Gottfried MA. (2014). Chronic absenteeism and its effects on students’ academic and socioemotional outcomes.
DOI: 10.1080/10824669.2014.962696

[13] Asthma action plan. (2012).
https://www.cdc.gov/asthma/actionplan.html

Air Quality Life is brought to you by The IQAir Group, the world’s leading innovator of Indoor Air Quality solutions since 1963. This online publication is designed to educate and inform the public about the latest research and news affecting indoor and outdoor air quality.

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