As the government ramps up its efforts to combat Beijing’s air pollution, a number of the city’s international schools have followed suit by re-evaluating their air quality management policies and taking action to create cleaner campus environments for their students.
Setting upper AQI (Air Quality Index) limits to determine when outdoor activities should be canceled has been a priority for many international schools. All seven of the institutions we surveyed in early 2013 told beijingkids they had established AQI limits based on readings from both the US Embassy and the Chinese government.
It may seem like a small and simple step. But for many students, not having such policies in place could spell the difference between a productive day at school or a day – if not a whole week – at home sick. The World Health Organization considers PM 2.5 readings in excess of 25 micrograms per cubic meter as potentially harmful to asthmatics.
Last January during the now-infamous Beijing “Airpocalypse," the density of PM 2.5 particulates surpassed 700 micrograms per cubic meter. Harrow International School of Beijing reported a sudden increase in students with upper respiratory infections, but the phenomenon could not be directly linked to the sky-high pollution readings.
This alarming spike, along with other health concerns, prompted the school to revise its AQI policy last April from a cut-off point of 275 to two different levels that determine when students are restricted from outside activities. Harrow also posts current AQI readings around play areas and guides students on how to modify their activities on polluted days.
“When the AQI reaches [200 and over] younger students do not go outside. For our older students, the cut-off is 251,” explains Nici Newbold, the head school nurse at Harrow. “The different levels take into account the increased effect of pollution on younger children as they tend to be more active during playtime.”
“Healthy lifestyles are a key part of the school’s curriculum and air quality is also discussed with students during tutorials,” Newbold adds. “Students need to understand air quality and its effects, and not just be told they can’t go outside to play.”
Several schools have also invested in free-standing air purifiers for classrooms. The International Montessori School of Beijing, for example, adheres to a cut-off point of AQI of 200, keeps its units constantly running, and replaces filters regularly. On days that exceed that benchmark, all windows and doors are kept shut students are restricted to indoor activities during recess. Some have even taken up knitting as a result.
Keeping students indoors on polluted days may be sensible, but it can come at the expense of much-needed opportunities for physical exercise. This problem was on the mind of administrators and staff at The International School of Beijing (ISB) when they measured how many days elementary school students had to be kept inside based on the school’s AQI limit of 270.
“When considering the fall semester of 2011, we found that there were four consecutive weeks exceeded our AQI limit,” says Gerrick Monroe, the chief operating and financial officer at ISB. "As a result, our students had to stay in the cafeteria and library during recess about 20 percent of the time. We needed another option.”
To get around this problem, ISB came up with an ingenious solution: the school constructed two sealed sports and recreation domes to ensure that students could still exercise on polluted days.
“They love the fact that they have places to run around,” says Gerrick. “They still prefer playing outside, [so]we are working on making the domed areas more fun for them.” With the introduction of the domes, students at ISB are still able to get the physical exercise they need when the AQI exceeds 150.”
Filled with purified and pressurized air, ISB’s two sports and recreation domes sit side-by-side on an area spanning over 8,500sqm. Facilities include a five-a-side soccer pitch, a 400m running track, a large multi-purpose area, and six tennis courts. The domes also have heat recovery systems to maintain an ambient temperature, allowing students to practice a variety of traditionally "outdoor" sports regardless of season or temperature.
Besides the domes, ISB has taken steps to improve its indoor air quality. The facilities team upgraded the air filtration system across the campus by installing 34 new air handlers designed to provide what is called "pharmaceutical-grade" air equivalent to the quality of air in a pharmaceutical laboratory. Pressurized entrances and stairwells ensure this air quality throughout the 51,000sqm premises.
Not surprisingly, all these improvements require significant investment and maintenance. But consider these numbers: The average AQI at ISB reads between 30 and 40 in the domes and 10 to 15 in the classrooms any given day. Parents and faculty agree that the expense is necessary to ensure a safe learning environment for staff and students.
“I think everyone understands that we are in Beijing and unfortunately pollution is not something we can change,” says Carol Kim, vice president of planning and communication at YueCheng Education, which oversees Beijing City International School (BCIS). “But what we can change is the mini control of our environment.”
As with the other schools, BCIS has installed Blueair air purifiers in all nursery and pre-kindergarten classrooms. When beijingkids visited the campus last November, the school was aiming to filter all of the campus’ indoor air by year’s end.
BCIS is also building an environmentally-friendly Early Childhood Center (ECC) for its youngest students. With a scheduled completion date of August 2014, it will be the first pre-school building in Beijing to be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) to have the Gold standard certification.
According to Kim, the building will maximize exposure to sunlight, which will be converted into solar energy. In addition, there will be a rooftop garden where students can grow their own vegetables.
“Beijing is our home and we want to be as proactive as we can when it comes to air quality,” she says. “We believe that it is our responsibility to take measures and educate our children that you have to be aware of the environment and do things to make it better for everyone.”
Find the downloadable 2014-2015 School Choice Guide here.
Photos courtesy of BCIS and