In November, schools in the National Capital Region were closed for more than two weeks due to severe air pollution. On November 3, when the Delhi government ordered primary schools to close, the air quality index, as per the Central Pollution Control Board, was categorised as “severe” at 468.

But on November 20, when schools reopened, the air quality was still in the “very poor” category – at 348. According to the parameters of the Central Pollution Control Board, an air quality index measure between 301-400 is considered “very poor” and between 401-500 as “severe”. It is not clear if “very poor” and “severe” air quality affects children differently.

The Central government’s Graded Response Action Plan, which lays out guidelines for different stages of air pollution, says that once the air quality dips to “severe” and “severe +” levels, it is up to the Delhi and other state governments in the National Capital Region to decide on closing schools. However, the rationale for why the Delhi government orders schools to close is unclear since there is no publicly available information about this.

The justification is that children must be protected but the decision to close schools, like other air quality management measures, lacks scientific evidence. Closing schools, instead, absolves educational institutions and government agencies of their responsibility to ensure that children breathe clean air and puts the onus on parents and guardians. It also hampers learning outcomes and disproportionately affects children from poorer households.

Children more vulnerable

The concern that children must be protected is not misplaced. Research has established that they are more susceptible to the effects of air pollution. High prenatal exposures are associated with premature delivery and low birth weight. Infants and young children are inherently more susceptible to the effects of air pollution as their lungs and airways are still developing.

They also breathe twice as fast at this age, often through the mouth, leading to a higher intake of pollutants compared to adults. Their shorter height also plays a role in pollutant exposure, especially from sources like vehicle exhausts. The result of this disproportionate exposure is that 1 in 10 deaths among children under the age of five are attributed to air pollution, according to the World Health Organization.

Air pollution can also affect academic performance. A study published in October 2021 shows that mathematics and reading skills are hampered by increasing exposure to ambient particulate matter, or PM 2.5, which are particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers that can harm lung health. Children exposed to air pollution are also less likely to be able to maintain the correct academic class for their age, the study said.

Students arrive at a school in Noida, in this photograph from November 2022. Credit: PTI.

Are school closures effective?

The assumption that children will breathe cleaner air at home is largely untrue. A study published in 2022 has shown that air pollution inside Delhi households is as bad if not worse than ambient levels during winter. In fact, PM2.5 levels in both low-Income households and high-income ones were found to be alarmingly high during winter.

Despite high-income households being more likely to own air purifiers, their indoor air pollution levels were only marginally lower than poorer households. Several factors can contribute to household air pollution, such as cooking, cleaning, household incense-stick use and the infiltration of outdoor air coupled with poor ventilation, heat and humidity.

By contrast, outdoor air benefits from dispersion. Indoor environments are more prone to concentrated pollution in the absence of effective air purification or ventilation, especially when it is cold.

School closures

School closures are detrimental for the development of children and online classes are a poor substitute, something even the Delhi Commission for Air Quality Management has acknowledged. Factors such as isolation from peers and teachers, poor supervision at home and the unpredictability of closures have adverse effects on children, their families, as well as school staff.

The impacts are worse on children from poorer households. Wealthy households have the option of sealing their homes and purifying the air inside, something that poorer families cannot do so. The negative impacts of school closures and online classes are exacerbated in this context, as supervision is poorer and the tools to access online classes are unequal.

Air pollution, far from being a “great equaliser”, is in fact the exact opposite with school closures worsening the divide between households from different socio-economic backgrounds. It also goes against the very idea of a school, which is to act as a levelling-ground for all its students, irrespective of their backgrounds.

Kartavya Path in Delhi in October 2022. Credit: PTI.

Can we move past school closures?

More recently, apart from air pollution, other environmental factors such as floods and heatwaves have further disrupted school schedules. During 2020 and 2021, the Covid-19 pandemic had also resulted in schools being shut for about 650 days in Delhi.

Closing schools is predicated on a poor trade-off between a supposed marginal benefit to children’s health and a definite adverse impact on children’s education and development. Air pollution is a complex problem that requires a sustained and comprehensive government response which may take a long time to fructify.

But what are the short-term options?

The focus must be on a region-wide effort to reduce the exposure of children to toxic air in and around schools. This is far from perfect but the reality is that most children cannot avoid toxic air. At the least, keeping schools protected and functional will help maintain an equitable learning environment.

First, mitigating sources near schools, such as industries, waste and biomass burning, road dust, and vehicular exhaust, should be prioritised. Designating areas around schools as clean air zones and restricting specific polluting activities within these zones must be considered.

Second, indoor air pollution in schools should be quantified by initiating indoor air quality monitoring. Although the National Green Tribunal directed the Central Pollution Control Board to establish regulations for indoor air quality nearly a year ago, progress updates are not publicly available.

Establishing standards will enable the installation of air quality monitors in schools, promoting awareness and encouraging actions such as ventilation and air purification to minimise exposure. Schools that cannot afford these solutions must receive government funds.

Third, to combat exposure during transit, schools must encourage students to wear masks with appropriate fit and comfort, along with the use of safe and reliable public transport such as buses and the metro. The use of cars must be discouraged as their congregation around school premises worsens the problem.

But an important question remains: who will implement these measures, especially when existing agencies are severely understaffed?

Addressing the challenge of air pollution and school disruptions will require long-term strategic planning, including a thorough examination of the issue, understanding its root causes and building institutional capacity.

Without these steps, it will be practically impossible to effectively reduce children’s exposure to poor air quality.

Arunesh Karkun and Abinaya Sekar are Senior Research Associates affiliated with the Sustainable Futures Collaborative, a think tank examining frontier issues in climate change, energy transitions and environmental challenges. Views expressed are personal.

The authors thank Bhargav Krishna, Shibani Ghosh and Sonali Verma for their inputs in developing this article.