The business case for healthy schools

Today marks the 20th National Healthy Schools Day.

By Dr. Erika Eitland, Director of our Human Experience Lab, and Rachael Dumas, Research  Knowledge Manager, Senior Associate


$17 Trillion. According to the United Nations, in December 2021, this was the total estimated loss in lifelong earnings for students experiencing school closures during the pandemic. A financial loss equivalent to the gross domestic product (GDP) of China and Japan combined. Impactful on its own, this statistic does not include the loss of earnings and productivity for adults who had to miss work or leave the workforce completely to take care of sick children or shepherd them through remote learning.  

The challenges incurred during the pandemic made decades of statistics and governmental reports personal. The simple fact is our schools are sick and their deteriorating infrastructure is not only a public health crisis, but an economic one as well.   

  • Hours spent in school by students: 15,000 hours by the time they graduate 12th grade. 
  • Number of Public Schools: Over 97,000 public schools in the U.S. 
  • Number of Students: 50.7 million students in the U.S.
  • Total square feet of K-12 infrastructure: estimated 6.6 billion square feet of space across a million acres of land.
Windermere Elementary School

As we mark the 20th National Healthy Schools Day, we cannot shirk away from the environmental and social challenges that kept our schools closed. Especially when it is estimated that majorityBlack schools are 5 months behind their baseline performance in math and reading compared to their majority-White school counterparts that are only 2 months behind. School is not just childcare, it is where our students go to grow, develop social skills, learn fundamentals, dream, and play. Healthy students and teachers are fundamental to thriving learning ecosystems and ultimately future economic and societal success. 

As we embrace federal funding and The Clean Air in Building Challenge announced by the White House last month, opportunity awaits at the intersection of green and healthy schools. The largest operating cost is the people who occupy schools – teacher and staff salaries and health insurance, state funding for student attendance, followed by energy costs. When we choose to invest in quality schools, there are indirect benefits to our communities. According to the 2021 State of Our Schools report, achieving higher maintenance and operations standards would add 319,321 new green jobs in schools across the U.S.  

Perkins&Will is dedicated to democratizing practical, evidence-informed healthy building strategies. Our research shows that both existing and newly constructed buildings can promote holistic student health and safety. After surveying hundreds of school stakeholders, interviewing healthy buildings advocates in our new podcast, Inhabit, and listening to facility managers, we have 3 pieces of advice for creating a holistically healthy school. 

  1. Quit playing environmental whack-a-mole. For decades, schools selectively attacked one environmental problem at a time – indoor air quality, lead in drinking water, deteriorating insulation with asbestos or crumbling caulk containing cancer causing legacy pollutants. Instead, identify health challenges and physical spaces that need improvement. This inventory may illuminate multipurpose solutions like high background noise due to a loud HVAC system. 
  2. Plan for uncertainty. School buildings are the largest piece of infrastructure in many communities and can be the first line of defense during the next pandemic or natural disaster. Let’s embrace the lessons learned during COVID and use them help us create and operate more resilient buildings. 
  3. Advocate. Healthy schools don’t happen by accident. Support your local facilities staff by providing them resources to maintain building systems and invest in integrated pest management approaches. In the design and construction phase, do not let systems get value engineered out. Improved ventilation and filtration are critical for reducing asthma cases, infectious disease transmission (COVID, common cold, seasonal flu), and promoting cognitive function for teachers and students. 

On this National Healthy Schools Day, let’s work together to create thriving schools at the heart of every community. 

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