The worst air pollution levels ever documented in Beijing have led to a flurry of health concerns and an increase in air purifier sales, and, at many international schools around Beijing, a re-evaluation of procedures when the AQI spikes. Seven of Beijing’s international schools responded to questions regarding their pollution policies and what they’re doing to keep their students healthy.
The common factor in air pollution policies is that they establish an upper limit for when outdoor activities are canceled, though that limit varies by school. Staff consistently monitor the air quality readings published by the US Embassy and the Chinese government, but none of the schools establish upper limits for indoor activities, and most do not monitor indoor air quality.
Nici Newbold, the head school nurse at Harrow International School of Beijing, monitors the AQI and instructs on the school’s pollution policies. The school, like many others in Beijing, uses an AQI cutoff of 275 for canceling all outdoor activities. “Though 275 is quite an arbitrary figure, [the school]is trying to find the balance of students being active [versus]pollution risks,” Newbold states. For Saturday sports, Harrow follows the guidelines put forth by the International Schools Athletics Conference (ISAC), which state that if the AQI is 251 or over 3 hours prior to the event, the event will be canceled. If the tournament begins and the AQI reaches 276 after play, the event will be stopped.
When asked if the “airpocalypse” resulted in a higher rate of respiratory problems, Newbold replied that the school has “definitely had a high sickness rate and [is]seeing numerous students and staff with upper respiratory infections this week. I couldn’t say if this is a direct link to the recent high pollution levels.” At the beginning of the school year, Harrow students have a session on air quality, what the levels mean, and what they should do.
Many international schools invest in individual air purifier units for classrooms. At The International Montessori School of Beijing (MSB), classroom air purifiers are always on and filters are regularly replaced. MSB also has a pollution policy to which it strictly adheres. Bevin Hoffman, MSB’s systems and library manager, explains that the school “checks the pollution levels, as a ‘safe’ level can change to ‘hazardous’ very quickly. Once the US Embassy reports the AQI at over 200, all students must remain in the building; all windows and doors are closed and all outdoor activities will be canceled.” When outdoor activities are canceled, students go to the library for activities like reading, and some of the students have even taken up knitting.
The Canadian International School of Beijing (CISB) also outfits every homeroom class with an air purifier, and the elementary school principal monitors the AQI every day. Head of School Douglas Prescott provided details on the school’s policy, which also establishes 275 as a cutoff point, and students are not permitted outdoors for activities, including class breaks, lunch hour, physical education classes, or after-school athletics programs. On indoor days activities include reading, drawing, board games, and, for students grades 6 and older, their schedules revert to the indoor gyms, dance studio, or fitness room.
Other schools are going to great and expensive lengths to allow students to participate in physical activities no matter the air quality. Both Dulwich College Beijing and the International School of Beijing (ISB) have specially-built domes for athletic activities. The domes, which are pressurized, have built-in filtration systems. ISB recently completed construction on its two domes, the materials for which were shipped from the US.
Dulwich’s dome was completed in September, 2011, and over the summer of 2012, the school installed air purification units. Readings inside the dome now typically reach between 0 and 5 on the AQI. According to Dulwich, they were approached to partner with ISB and the Western Academy of Beijing (WAB) to partake in a research project that samples campus air quality and compares it with the government’s official readings. Dulwich plans to install a scanner for that purpose at their Legend Garden campus.
There are also a lot of discussions going on within school administrators to re-assess or evolve pollution policies. In light of the extreme pollution levels last week, the British School of Beijing (BSB) decided to review its existing pollution policy. Beijing City International School (BCIS) is also discussing buying individual air purifiers for classrooms with children who have compromised respiratory systems. The school also continually monitors the AQI and makes continuing assessments on whether to continue, restrict, or cancel activities. There will also be a complete air purification system built into the Beijing City Early Childhood Center, which will be China’s first LEED-certified educational facility and is slated to open in August, 2014.
Photo courtesy of Dulwich