Maryellen, a special education teacher, had a dry cough that never seemed to go away. The doctor said it was seasonal allergies and, it did always seem to get better over long breaks like winter and summer vacation. It wasn’t until another teacher in her building developed adult-onset asthma that they began to suspect school air quality might be the culprit.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 50 percent of schools report poor air quality. And in 2012, a survey of school building air quality revealed that two-thirds of teachers in Washington, D.C. “reported air quality at their schools of either fair or poor. More than half of Chicago teachers responding to the same survey also reported fair or poor school air quality.” While some districts made improvements to their heating/cooling systems due to COVID-19, many others are still lagging, leaving students and teachers spending hours every day breathing air that could be harming them. Read on to see if your school might qualify as a “sick school.”

Sign #1 Leaks and Stained Ceiling Tiles

Drop ceiling in a school with bad air quality showing water stains

Does your classroom ceiling look like this? Or does everyone in the building know that one water fountain that leaks so much they just put a plastic bag around the pipes? Buildings that have moisture problems can also have mold problems. And mold can lead to a whole host of health issues. Nasal congestion, sinus infections, fevers, coughs, and chills are just a few.

Sign #2 Teachers Frequently Sick

Woman sick with a cold

Do teachers really have more robust immune systems than people in other professions? Turns out, there may be evidence supporting this commonly held myth. With this in mind, if you or your colleagues seem to be catching every cold, flu, or other sniffle your students are passing around, it might be an indicator that the air quality in your building is partially responsible.

Sign #3 Wildly Fluctuating Temperatures

Young woman standing in front of white background in a tshirt and cardigan that is draped around her shoulders

Does your classroom only seem to have two temperatures? Way too hot or way too cold? If so, your building has an air quality problem. In fact, thermal control is a hugely important component in creating positive learning environments. Students struggle to learn in classrooms that are too cold or too hot. Adjusting classroom temperatures to improve thermal comfort can boost student performance on psychological tests and school tasks by 20 percent.

Sign #4 Dry, Irritating Coughs

Young man in button down business shirt coughing into his hand

A persistent dry cough even though you drink water throughout the day? Dry, irritated eyes, sinuses, and throats are common in buildings where air quality isn’t up to par. Sometimes, the problem is because air doesn’t circulate enough in buildings that are well-insulated against outside temperatures. Other times, however, they can be signs of bigger issues.

Sign #5 Little Furry Visitors

Small mouse sitting on a child's coat or backpack on a coat hook

Mice are common pests in many schools and classrooms. From full storage closets where they can hide and burrow to cabinets full of snacks, mice can make a pretty good life for themselves in a school building. And as gross as it sounds, this means particles of their droppings, saliva, and fur can be in the air, waiting to cause problems. According to the EPA, rodents can spread more than 35 separate diseases. This can happen by direct contact with the animal or by coming into contact with their urine, feces, or saliva. While getting vermin out of the building is not an air quality issue, it’s important to make sure the air we breathe at school is clean and well-filtered.

Sign #6 Headaches on Schedule

Brunette woman looking at a laptop while rubbing her temples

For some of us, headaches are an unfortunately common part of the day. If, however, you start to notice that you develop a headache before noon each school day, but not during other stressful situations, the air quality in your classroom or building might be responsible.

Sign #7 Mystery Symptoms

Black woman with her back facing us as she rubs her neck in discomfort

Headaches, nausea, dizziness, irritability, itchy eyes, and respiratory illnesses, muscle tension, and other physical symptoms can have many causes. But working in a “sick building” might explain why you’re having those symptoms when the other causes don’t seem to apply anymore. The concept of “sick building syndrome” has been around since the 1970s when doctors started seeing patients with similar symptoms who all worked in the same buildings.

Does school air quality have you worried?

If any of the items on this list made you concerned about your school’s air quality, Trane®, a world leader in air conditioning systems, services and solution wants to help. Check out their links below to help you take the next steps to making your building healthy for students, faculty, and staff.

Do you believe that you work in a “sick school?” Tell us about it in the comments.

7 Signs You're Teaching in a Sick School Building