The New Standard for Healthy Classrooms: Fewer Sick Days, Better Performance

On Thursday, August 26th, R-Zero partnered with the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), also known as The School Superintendents Association, to host a panel discussion on best practices in working toward, “The New Standard for Healthy Classrooms: Fewer Sick Days, Better Performance.” The session brought together public health experts and school leaders to explore how K-12 schools can reduce absenteeism and elevate performance by improving indoor health.

Led by moderator Kevin Samy, a former EPA and Obama administration official and current advisor to R-Zero, the panel included the following panelists: 

  • Dr. Paula Fujiwara – Scientific Director of the International Union Against TB and Lung Disease; former NYC Assistant Health Commissioner 
  • Lee Ann Wentzel – Superintendent of Schools, Ridley School District (Delaware County, PA)
  • Jeff Wagner – Chief of Facilities, Clark County School District (Las Vegas, NV) 
  • Roger Silveira – Director of Facilities, East Union High School District (San Jose, CA) 
  • Eli Harris – President and Co-Founder, R-Zero Systems 

With many schools already back in session or starting the school year soon, this timely panel enabled participants to learn from these experts’ public health and practitioner expertise in managing and mitigating risk during the COVID pandemic and beyond.

The Importance of Environmental Controls in Infection Mitigation Efforts

Dr. Fujiwara, a returning panelist on the subject of K-12 school biosafety, kicked off the conversation by providing perspective on how a three-part hierarchy of infection control can allow K-12 schools to better manage and mitigate infection risk. These controls take three forms: 

  • Administrative controls focused on the three Ps (Plans, Policies, and Protocols)
  • Environmental controls focused on the cleanliness of shared spaces and air
  • Personal protection, which can include physical distancing, hand-washing, mask-wearing, and vaccinating

Having elaborated on this hierarchy, Dr. Fujiwara stressed that all three control types are crucial to success. She highlighted the efficacy of UV light technology in enabling cleanliness for shared spaces before encouraging participants not to overlook the importance of environmental controls, which are often neglected outside of traditional healthcare infection control settings.

“We are all connected by the air we breathe, and that air should be as clean as possible.”

Dr. Paula Fujiwara

Eli Harris built on Dr. Fujiwara’s insights by explaining how, as a company, R-Zero has focused its innovation on bringing hospital-grade technology into non-hospital indoor environments. He observed that historically there has been a lack of understanding around the impact of air quality on indoor environments other than hospitals. With awareness of the impact physical environments have on our health on the rise, R-Zero’s mission is oriented around making technologies that improve the health of indoor spaces, accessible to all organizations – especially schools. 

Real-World Insights from K-12 School Leaders

Having established foundational principles around infection control practices and the technology that can enable them, the discussion then shifted to the real-world experiences of school decision-makers Lee Ann Wentzel, Jeff Wagner, and Roger Silveira. Each of these administrators outlined how they had taken a layered approach to the complex problem of infection control and risk mitigation in their school system. When choosing a solution for her school district, Lee Ann Wentzel said she and her team researched options extensively before selecting R-Zero as a disinfection partner. For her, the search came down to being able to answer the following questions confidently: “What do you want to do and why? What is the value of what we’re doing… and if we’ve made the right decision, how can we sustain this going forward?” 

Jeff Wagner shared this sentiment regarding long-term impact and value. He described how when making decisions for his school district (the fifth largest in the country), the solutions he selected had to align with his primary objectives. “My core mission is student performance,” he explained. Consequently, when evaluating how to protect student performance by keeping kids healthy at school, he knew he would need to take a long-term view of solutions and success. Ultimately that approach led him to also partner with R-Zero. Based on his experience, he advised other school leaders to “do the research. Think about what you want your district to look like in five, ten years and make the decisions that support that vision.”

“We are in a very pivotal moment in time… The silver lining, if there is one, of the pandemic is that we’re finally starting to have a robust conversation about healthy buildings and how they impact the performance of the occupants.”

Jeff Wagner, Clark County School District

For Roger Silveira, indoor health was already a passion area long before COVID. He founded the organization We Need Fresh Air after recognizing that there was a clear correlation between student performance and air quality in the schools he oversees. He started crunching the numbers based on the ventilation rates he knew were in play at his district’s schools, ultimately finding that a 1% bump in student attendance would add an additional $2.5 million dollars in revenue for the district. His findings yielded an important insight: by repairing the dysfunction resulting from environmental issues, he was confident that they could improve performance overall. As Mr. Silveira himself summarized, “We can recover that loss, that funding loss, that learning loss from students.”

The discussion continued, and covering critical topics for education leaders – including ROI, student achievement, the science behind UV technology, custodial staffing concerns, funding disbursement, and best practices for creating and maintaining healthier indoor learning environments (such as surface and air disinfection).

Watch the full session here or reach out to R-Zero to learn more.

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