Professor Partners with Boston Public Schools to Study Classroom Air Quality
Patricia Fabian has teamed up with Boston Public Schools to launch a variety of research projects harnessing the district’s one-of-a-kind dataset on school air quality derived from sensors in more than 4,400 classrooms.
When Patricia Fabian learned that Boston Public Schools (BPS) had received federal Coronavirus relief funding to install indoor air quality sensors in its more than 4,400 classrooms, she immediately appreciated the magnitude of opportunities—and data—the sensors could provide.
An associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health, Fabian has studied indoor air quality for more than 20 years. Historically, she says, regulators have largely focused on limiting outdoor air pollution. There are relatively few standards for indoor air quality despite a growing body of evidence to suggest that pollutant levels indoors may be significantly higher than outdoors. In schools, poor indoor air quality may affect both the health and cognitive performance of students and staff. However, the pandemic has reshuffled priorities, Fabian says.
The airborne transmission of COVID called attention to the safety of enclosed, shared spaces and generated increased interest in, and funding for, projects to implement or improve heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in aging public buildings such as schools, says Fabian.
“Fifty million children in the US attend school every day in grades K through 12. Many of us spend years inside school buildings during a period of life marked by rapid growth and development. This is a key time when we can really make a difference.”
Determined to seize the moment, Fabian leveraged her 2022-2023 sabbatical to cultivate a research partnership with BPS and together they launched a pilot study, Understanding indoor air quality, thermal comfort, and energy use in classrooms, and the impact of SARS-CoV-2 engineering controls. Conducted in collaboration with BPS’s Sustainability, Energy, and Environment Program, led by Katherine Walsh, the project harnesses the district’s comprehensive indoor air quality monitoring network.
Operational since late 2021 through $6.7 million in Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, BPS’s indoor air quality sensors measure and record six parameters—carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, temperature, relative humidity, and inhalable particulate matter (both PM10, particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter, and PM2.5, fine particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, which are separately defined for regulatory purposes but each have adverse health effects)—every minute of the day, 365 days a year. The data are then shared in near real-time to a public dashboard.
“[This] is a really groundbreaking, one-of-a-kind dataset,” says Fabian. “[BPS] can use it to make adjustments to their systems and operations or to find out when there are problems like a carbon monoxide leak, but they are resource-constrained to take the billions of data points generated every year and use them to support grant applications, decisions, and policies. That is where this partnership comes in.”
Fabian, who is also an associate director of the Boston University’s Institute for Global Sustainability and an affiliated faculty member of SPH’s Center for Climate and Health, has drawn on an array of BU and SPH resources to support the budding research partnership. BU’s Information Systems and Technology (IS&T), BU’s Research Computing Services (RCS), and SPH’s Biostatistics Epidemiology and Data Analytics Center (BEDAC) helped her transfer, clean, and store nearly three years of classroom sensor records into a usable research database. Implementing quality control algorithms, connecting multiple School datasets, and optimizing the database to run queries in minutes rather than hours were important objectives of the pilot study, Fabian said. Another was the creation of a fact sheet to educate the broader BPS community, including teachers, parents, and students, about the utility of the sensors in their classrooms.
The pilot study was supported by $10,000 in seed funding from BU’s Initiative on Cities and a $20,000 Established Investigator Innovation Award from idea hub, SPH’s innovation accelerator, and paved the way for Fabian to seek larger grants and expand the partnership’s portfolio of research. From identifying policies that would reduce asthma triggers in classrooms to pinpointing modifications that would make old school buildings more climate resilient and energy efficient, Fabian says she has multiple pending proposals for studies intended to support BPS’s decision-making, engage the broader BPS community, and reduce environmental health disparities.
The research partnership has also provided ample learning opportunities for BU students, says Fabian. Students from SPH’s Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Environmental Health program, SPH’s Master of Public Health (MPH) program, BU’s MS in Statistical Practice (MSSP) program, BU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), and BU Spark!, an innovation and experiential learning lab, have contributed to a variety of adjacent research activities using BPS’s indoor air quality data.
The merits of BPS’s pioneering approach to school air quality have garnered significant attention since Fabian and Walsh first forged their research partnership. They have presented at professional and academic conferences across the US and Europe and advised school stakeholders as far away as New Zealand. In 2022, Fabian attended the White House Summit on Improving Indoor Air Quality, which resulted in the Clean Air and Health Buildings Challenge, a pledge BPS signed. The following year BPS was named a Green Ribbon School District Sustainability Awardee by the U.S. Department of Education and awarded Best in Class for Energy Efficiency Plus Health by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Efficient and Healthy Schools Campaign.
According to Walsh, Fabian and her team at BU have been “amazing” partners and “instrumental” in helping BPS prioritize operational improvements, pursue investments in indoor environmental quality such as new HVAC systems, and communicate these efforts to the BPS community. Other school districts, government and public health officials, researchers, and advocates from all over the world—even a major airport—have all sought BPS’s advice on how to implement a similar indoor air quality monitoring programs in their buildings, she says.
“We have billions of datapoints with so much potential for improving the indoor environment and student and staff health, while advancing sustainability,” says Walsh. “[Fabian’s] expertise is helping us champion this nexus globally, but our Sustainability, Energy, and Environment team’s number one priority will always be local, applying the research to benefit our Boston Public Schools community. [Fabian] fully understands and promotes this critical focus, which is just another reason we are grateful for who she is and how she shows up as a researcher, expert, and partner.”
BPS has taken significant strides to improve school air quality and update school buildings, but the effects of these efforts can be difficult to discern, says Fabian. She anticipates their ongoing research partnership will support BPS to critically evaluate past and future interventions such as Boston’s Green New Deal school investments, advocate for needed changes and funding, and ultimately, determine the best course of action to promote the health of both children and staff in the classroom.