Donate Donate

Healthy Schools Pathway

Healthy schools iconEvery day, more than 56 million children in the United States attend school. Too often, their school buildings are hotbeds for poor air, water, and soil quality. There are many factors that contribute to these unsafe conditions, including changes in weather patterns due to climate change. Extreme precipitation can cause leaks and increased humidity, resulting in mold growth. And increased areas of drought contribute to wildfires, which result in poor air quality and compromise the health of students, staff, and the surrounding community.

Providing students and school staff with a healthy learning and working environment is an important component of a sustainable school. A healthy school is the responsibility of everyone, including school staff and administrators, students, and community members. While student involvement is key to the Eco‐Schools USA program, some issues addressed by this pathway require the expertise and training of facility managers and administrators.

Students walking outside of school

Fast Facts

  • Natural sunlight can improve mood, attention, cognitive performance, physical activity, sleep, and alertness.
  • Indoor air pollution is often two to five times greater than outdoor levels of air pollution due to a general lack of adequate air filtration and ventilation.
  • On average, one out of 10 children is affected by asthma, and asthma is one of the leading causes of school absenteeism, accounting for close to 13 million missed days per school year.
  • Studies show a consistent link between low-level lead exposure and children's reduced ability to do well in school.
  • Of the 85,000 synthetic chemicals in commercial use today, only a small fraction has been individually tested for toxicity on human health.

Following the Framework

Utilize the Seven Step Framework to complete your pathway.

Step 1: Form an Eco-Action Team

The Eco-Action Team is the driving force behind Eco-Schools USA. Ideally, your Eco-Action Team should be representative of the whole school community—including people beyond the school walls, such as facilities staff, board members, and members of the greater community. Eco-Schools USA has developed a worksheet to help guide the development of this team.

Step 2: Conduct an Environmental Audit

The Environmental Checklist is an essential tool for understanding the current environmental situation in your school. It provides the basis for your Eco-Action Plan. Eco-Schools USA has developed an activity to get your students started.

In addition to the optional Environmental Checklist, pathway-specific audits allow teams to utilize a pathway-specific lens to dive deeper into problems and solutions, and provide the basis for the team’s Eco-Action Plan.

Healthy Schools: Hazardous Materials Audit 

Healthy Schools: Indoor Air Quality Audit

Healthy Schools: Mercury Audit

Healthy Schools: Mold Growth Audit

Healthy Schools: Laboratory Waste Audit

Healthy Schools: Pest Management Audit

Step 3: Create an Eco-Action Plan

The action plan follows as the result of analysis and conclusions drawn from the Environmental Audit and sets forth a series of goals, actions, and a timeline for achieving environmental improvements.

1. To get started, preview the sample action plan for the Healthy Schools pathway. This example is designed to be a springboard to developing the team’s own action plan.

2. Use the blank action plan to develop the team’s vision.

Sample Action Plan (K-5) | Blank Action Plan (K-5)
Sample Action Plan (6-12) | Blank Action Plan (6-12)

Step 4: Monitor and Evaluate Progress

Monitoring and evaluation are intrinsic elements of the action plan, helping to check progress toward goals, make adjustments for greater success, and validate that actions are making an impact.

Step 5: Link to Existing Curriculum

Enrich your classroom curriculum with Eco-Schools projects and activities.

Step 6: Involve the Community

Communities are made up of diverse perspectives. When students consistently and authentically work to include community members from all walks of life, not just the school community, they are gaining access to dynamic networks whose end goals are the same, making their place in this world happier and healthier.

Step 7: Create an Eco-Code

The Eco-Code is the school’s mission statement and should demonstrate—in a positive, inclusive, and imaginative way—the whole school’s commitment to improving their environmental performance.

Step 1: Form an Eco-Action Team

The Eco-Action Team is the driving force behind Eco-Schools USA. Ideally, your Eco-Action Team should be representative of the whole school community—including people beyond the school walls, such as facilities staff, board members, and members of the greater community. Eco-Schools USA has developed a worksheet to help guide the development of this team.

Step 2: Conduct an Environmental Audit

The Environmental Checklist is an essential tool for understanding the current environmental situation in your school. It provides the basis for your Eco-Action Plan. Eco-Schools USA has developed an activity to get your students started.

In addition to the optional Environmental Checklist, pathway-specific audits allow teams to utilize a pathway-specific lens to dive deeper into problems and solutions, and provide the basis for the team’s Eco-Action Plan.

Healthy Schools: Hazardous Materials Audit 

Healthy Schools: Indoor Air Quality Audit

Healthy Schools: Mercury Audit

Healthy Schools: Mold Growth Audit

Healthy Schools: Laboratory Waste Audit

Healthy Schools: Pest Management Audit

Step 3: Create an Eco-Action Plan

The action plan follows as the result of analysis and conclusions drawn from the Environmental Audit and sets forth a series of goals, actions, and a timeline for achieving environmental improvements.

1. To get started, preview the sample action plan for the Healthy Schools pathway. This example is designed to be a springboard to developing the team’s own action plan.

2. Use the blank action plan to develop the team’s vision.

Sample Action Plan (K-5) | Blank Action Plan (K-5)
Sample Action Plan (6-12) | Blank Action Plan (6-12)

Step 4: Monitor and Evaluate Progress

Monitoring and evaluation are intrinsic elements of the action plan, helping to check progress toward goals, make adjustments for greater success, and validate that actions are making an impact.

Step 5: Link to Existing Curriculum

Enrich your classroom curriculum with Eco-Schools projects and activities.

Step 6: Involve the Community

Communities are made up of diverse perspectives. When students consistently and authentically work to include community members from all walks of life, not just the school community, they are gaining access to dynamic networks whose end goals are the same, making their place in this world happier and healthier.

Step 7: Create an Eco-Code

The Eco-Code is the school’s mission statement and should demonstrate—in a positive, inclusive, and imaginative way—the whole school’s commitment to improving their environmental performance.

Sustainable Development Goals

goal 3 - good health and well-being
goal 4 - quality education
goal 9 - industry, innovation and infrastructure
Goal 10 - reduced inequalities
goal 13 - climate action
goal 15 - life on land
goal 16 - peace, justice, and strong institutions
goal 17 - partnerships for the goals

Top 10 Tips to Create a Healthy School

  • Use HEPA filters in the ventilation system and change air filters regularly.
  • Make sure all air vents are unblocked and free from clutter.
  • Ask bus drivers not to idle next to the fresh air intake and ask facilities staff to move garbage away from air intakes.
  • Check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Action Kit, which can help you improve indoor air problems at little or no cost.

  • When choosing materials such as paint, furniture, carpets, insulation, or ceiling tiles, consider factors such as low off-gassing or recycled content. Look for green building products that have been certified through programs such as Green Seal, Green Guard, Environmental Choice or Green Label Plus.
  • When designing new spaces or remodeling existing buildings, consider the benefits of maximizing daylight through the use of windows and skylights.
  • Encourage janitorial staff to utilize green cleaning products. It can be difficult to determine which commercial cleaning products are safe for people and the environment, so look for products that have been certified by Green Seal, or research cleaning product recipes that utilize natural ingredients such as vinegar, lemon, and baking soda.
  • Check out the Green Schools Initiative’s Green Schools Buying Guide, which is chock-full of information to help schools make purchasing decisions that will protect students’ health and the environment.

  • Contact your local waste management agency to find out how to appropriately dispose of electronics. Televisions, computer monitors, laptops, thermostats and other electronics can contain a combination of lead, mercury, PBDEs, and other chemicals. When an electronic product has reached the end of its life, it must be properly recycled to ensure the toxic components are handled with special care.
  • Develop a plan at your school for recycling burned out or broken compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) to avoid mercury exposure.
  • Make sure you take the appropriate steps to dispose of art materials. Some materials may need to be neutralized before disposal in the trash, while others may need to be taken to your county’s hazardous waste facility. Remember to recycle art materials whenever possible.

  • Encourage maintenance staff to develop an Integrated Pest Management plan and to consider eliminating pesticides entirely. Pesticides and other lawn chemicals are often used to maintain the school grounds and playing fields, resulting in exposure outside and tracking chemicals inside.
  • When replacing play structures, choose those that are non-toxic and utilize recycled content. Also consider constructing natural play spaces where students can connect, play, and learn in nature.
  • Reduce arsenic exposure on existing play structures by applying water sealers to all equipment. Consider testing arsenic using at-home kits.
  • Develop a no-idling policy at your school requiring school buses and cars to turn off their engines when waiting to pick up or drop off students.

  • Encourage students to use glass storage containers for leftovers or for carrying lunch to school. This reduces dependence on plastics and exposure to harmful BPA.
  • Look into how food is packaged and reheated at your school to ensure chemicals are not leaching into food served to students. Never microwave food in a plastic container.
  • Encourage students to start carrying reusable BPA-free water bottles that can be refilled at water fountains.

  • Research how students can conduct laboratory experiments utilizing the least toxic chemicals possible.
  • Teach lab safety not only to students, but also to any school staff who may have access to laboratory chemicals or who are assisting in the classroom.
  • Make sure your school has a plan in place for storing chemicals. This plan should outline what chemicals can be stored together, how each chemical needs to be stored, when the chemicals need to be disposed of, and how to safely dispose of them. This information is usually kept on the school’s Safety Data Sheet (SDS).
  • Find out if someone in your county can visit your school to discuss handling, storage and disposal of chemicals. Ask questions and inquire about storage and disposal options that might save your school money.

  • Provide asthma training for staff and students. Outline how to minimize asthma triggers, and provide an overview of how to respond to a student suffering from an asthma attack.
  • Consider eliminating the following asthma triggers from your school: urinal blocks, candles, deodorizers, plug-in air fresheners, aerosol sprays, furniture from home, stuffed animals and area rugs. Dust frequently.
  • Dust particles come in many different sizes and can have different impacts on body systems, especially those with weakened or sensitive immune systems. Impacts can include asthma attacks, hay fever, sneezing, coughing, and eye irritation.
  • Evaluate whether a class pet will trigger asthma attacks in students. An aquarium is a good option for any classroom with students who have asthma problems.

  • If your school was built before 1978, students may be exposed to lead through lead-based paints and lead dust. Reach out to your county to request that a professional inspect your school for lead and, if found, recommend steps for abatement.
  • Take a close look at furniture, toys and fixtures in your school as they may be contaminated with lead if they were made before 1978.
  • Test your school's drinking water. Outdated infrastructure can lead to lead contamination of student's drinking water.
  • Check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s Healthy School Environments page for links to more information about lead.

  • Inspect your school building, looking for signs of water leaks and mold. Report them immediately to the janitorial staff or appropriate building administrator.
  • Check to see if moisture-generating areas (such as kitchens and locker rooms) have vents to the outside. Consider whether high humidity levels in your school might mean you need to run a portable dehumidifier during the day.

  • Take an inventory of your school to determine all mercury-containing items. Look into purchasing mercury-free alternatives when possible.
  • Develop a mercury spill response plan. Hold a training to educate all staff on how to properly clean up a mercury spill. Make sure there are mercury clean-up kits in all rooms that contain mercury.
  • Learn how to properly dispose of items containing mercury in your county. Because mercury is hazardous, you should never put items containing mercury in the regular garbage.
  • Never use a vacuum cleaner, mop or broom to clean up a mercury spill! Heat from the vacuum’s motor will increase the amount of mercury vapor in the air. Mops and brooms will spread the mercury, making proper cleanup more difficult and costly.