State looks at improving air quality at old schools

CONCORD – A legislative study committee will study how many of the state’s aging schools can improve indoor air quality so tens of thousands of students will be able to learn in healthier environments.

The trick will be to find ways to make school districts improve their air quality without breaking their budgets.

“I think the goal of the committee is to find ways to improve indoor environments without huge costs to school districts,” said Matt Comai, one of 10 committee members.

The study group consists of 10 people, including elected officials, state employees and representatives of various organizations. Comai, for example, is a school risk-management representative at the Local Government Center.

The committee has met just twice so far and hasn’t decided how it will first establish what the air quality in schools around the state currently is, Comai said.

Anecdotally, he said, many schools in New Hampshire are old and money to maintain them is hard to come by, leading to declining air quality.

“Overall, there’s aging buildings in New Hampshire. Maintenance budgets are sometimes the first things to be cut,” Comai said. “It makes it harder for schools to maintain sound, healthy environments.”

The committee’s report is important, Comai said, because it directly affects how well students can learn and how effectively teachers can teach.

“It directly relates to test scores,” he said. “If they’re not healthy and they’re not there, they can’t learn. We want to make sure (teachers are) healthy as well. If they’re not healthy, they can’t teach.”

About 42,000 students in New Hampshire – about one in six – suffer from a chronic health condition, according to the Council for Children and Adolescents with Chronic Health Conditions, a nonprofit advocacy group.

About a quarter of those have severe or life-threatening illnesses, according to the CCACHC. Some of those conditions, such as asthma, can be exacerbated by poor air quality, CCACHC executive director Denise Brewitt said .

The CCACHC, a state agency that advises the legislature on chronic conditions affecting the state’s children, helped push through the bill that established the school air quality study committee this summer.

The commission will study air quality issues and the feasibility of implementing air quality standards and regular air quality inspections at the state’s 470 public schools, according to the law. The commission is expected to file its final report before November 2009.