Do the changes made in climate shelter schools improve pupils’ health?
The project climate shelters “ to adapt schools to climate change through the colours green, blue and grey”, 80% funded by the European Commission Urban Innovative Action programme, was launched almost two years ago. One of the key actions, intervention in eleven schools with a package of blue measures (the incorporation of water points and water play), green measures (shaded spaces and vegetation), and grey measures (shaded spaces, actions in the buildings to improve cross insulation and ventilation), to transform them into spaces adapted to the effects of climate change including heat waves, was completed last October.
These interventions are now a reality and are being enjoyed by students and teachers in the schools. It is also envisaged that city residents can use these spaces in the summer. However, whether or not these changes really have made the hoped for difference and have had a positive impact on the health and natural environment of the schools needs to be assessed.
To that end, the project’s scientific partners – the Barcelona Public Health Agency (ASPB), the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), and the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) – have been monitoring and assessing the interventions, taking measures before, during and after their implementation to see how effective they are, while involving the educational community by providing them with the tools needed to be able to take their own measures.
The direct impact on health
The ASPB and the ISGlobal are studying the impact of the interventions on health and well-being via studies involving the pupils, the teachers and the community who use the environments, particularly those who use the open playgrounds.
To evaluate the potential benefits of the interventions on users’ mental and physical health, surveys have been compiled containing questions about perception of health, the comfort of the school, and use of the school playground before and after the interventions. These surveys have been administered in both the schools involved in the project and ten control schools, selected because they have some similar features to the former but where there have been no interventions so the differences can be ascertained.
As regards the studies with teaching staff, discussion groups will be formed with teachers from the different schools in May and June of this year to analyse the overall impact of the project, its pedagogical aspect and the impact on the environment from their perspective.
They will also start to take observational measures and briefly survey the people who use the school playgrounds as recreational spaces in July under the “Open Playgrounds” programme to analyse the impact the interventions have had on the community.
At the same time, the ASPB has been monitoring and assessing the process of implementing the project from the beginning. The pedagogical aspect of the different activities that take place, such as workshops for teachers or each school's participative process, have also been analysed using satisfaction surveys.
How have the improvements in the environment affected air quality and health?
ISGlobal are responsible for assessing whether the changes produced in the school environments have resulted in improvements in air quality, health and well-being. For example, analysing whether the interventions have led to lower temperatures and less humidity in summer, or reduced the suspended particles and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the atmosphere. Various sensors have been installed at each school to measure these changes and follow-up visits are organised to take periodical measurements.
All these changes in the environments have a direct effect on the health of both the students and the teachers because if a teachers’ working conditions improve (thermal comfort, not having to shout, etc.) their health and the quality of their work, like that of the children, does too. For the purpose of these studies, ISGlobal measures the temperature and the humidity of a sample group of volunteers during school hours. These measurements, together with the online perception surveys, help to assess their thermal comfort.
Apart from changes in the environment, ISGlobal is also analysing whether the interventions benefit the children's cognitive lock-in. A sample group of four intervention schools and four control schools are assessing the potential benefits of the interventions in terms of the children’s capacity to concentrate, based on attention tests administered online before and after the interventions.
Finally, ISGlobal is also monitoring the use of school playgrounds during break times. The types and levels of physical activity, the type of play, the interaction among the children and the use made of the shaded spaces are being monitored by means of systematic observation. Most of these uses have an impact on health. A clear example was observed recently because, thanks to these interventions, the playgrounds have become more parcelled and that has facilitated their division during the current health crisis caused by Covid-19.
However, it must be remembered that the implementation of Covid-19 protocols was a very sudden occurrence which meant that during the break time the space had to be segmented and used in rotation, which largely dictated the dynamics observed among the children.
Carbon dioxide, key to the school community’s quality of life
ICTA-UAB is taking part in the project by measuring the carbon dioxide (CO2) accumulated inside the classrooms, in the different areas of the school and in the surrounding areas like the districts.
Changes in the amounts of CO2 depending on the temperature, the space, the presence or absence of plants that carry out photosynthesis, the shady spaces, the humidity, and so on, are assessed using measuring instruments. This is all based on experimentation with the pupils, who are taught to measure and assess the changes in their environment brought about by the interventions.
For example, the pupils see for themselves how the amount of CO2 in the classroom varies by taking an initial measure and seeing how after a short time they feel more sleepy and tired, not because of the class content but because with the windows closed the amount of CO2 has increased enormously, and this causes the sleepy feeling.
This serves to show the children the importance of good cross ventilation, for example, which allows the air to be renewed even if the windows are opened for just five minutes from time to time.
CO2 levels are also analysed in the school and district environments, by using a car fitted with measuring instruments that goes around analysing the areas nearest the school and further away from it. These data are used to produce a distribution map of CO2 around the schools.
Monitoring the effectiveness and replicating what works
The climate shelter project is based on innovation and, as such, one of its aims is to see which of the interventions has the greatest impact, while also trying to understand why. This analysis is fundamental for setting precedents that can be replicated in other schools and spaces.
The fact of assessing the health impact of the architectonic interventions is also innovative since these factors and how they affect the environment and people's quality of life are hardly ever analysed, even though according to the World Health Organisation our environment conditions 23% of our state of health.
Schools are a strategic intervention opportunity in the city and are assumed to be an equitable space both socially in territorially. All city children go to school, so if we intervene in schools we give all children the chance to enjoy the benefits because the schools are spread around the city, which means all the districts benefit.