Episode 03 extra

In the Room with Tracy Washington Enger

Hear the full interview with our expert guest from Episode 03, Tracy Washington Enger at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Find out how Tracy and the Indoor Environments Division turned knowledge into action with their Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) Tools for Schools program and why this is our moment to make our schools “palaces of learning.” Plus, hear a special introduction from Rachael Dumas, the K–12 knowledge manager at Perkins&Will. 

Show Notes

The U.S. EPA Indoor Environments Division has tailored resources for schools, including webinars, networking opportunities, and healthy-school renovation resources.

Tracy highlighted two that are focused on indoor air quality:


Tracy also shouts out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) model, which prioritizes IAQ in the physical environment of healthy schools.

Tracy names some of the heroes and sheroes she has encountered on her IAQ journey at the EPA:


For more IAQ guidance and inspiration from healthy-school rock stars, check out the “Indoor Air Quality Knowledge-to-Action” webinar series.


[Mantle clock winds up, then ticking with a low rumble underneath.]

Erika and Monica, in unison: Inhabit

Erika Eitland: is a show about

Monica Kumar: power

Erika Eitland: the power

Monica Kumar: the power of

PW Chorus: design.

[“Zig and Zag” by Alexandra Woodward / Epidemic Sound fades in.]

Rachael Dumas: OK. [Clears throat.] Oh hey! Inhabit is back with another edition of In the Room With. My name is Rachael Dumas. I’m the K-12 knowledge manager at Perkins&Will, which means that I work closely with our researchers, corporate teams, and design leaders to enhance learning environments for students. Today we are sharing our full interview with Tracy Washington Enger of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As the daughter of an immigrant father who valued education above everything else, I also place an extremely high value on school. And now as a parent to a 6-year-old, I can say that I want the world for him. I want him to be happy, I want him to be healthy—especially when he’s at school.

[“Zig and Zag” fades out; “Sparkle and Swirl” by Raymond Grouse / Epidemic Sound fades in.]

Tracy is right there with us. In a particularly moving conversation, she touches on our three love languages. Number 1: Be the researcher your community needs. Everyone can be a researcher by listening, observing, sharing, and acting. Tracy creates that greater sense of urgency to make school buildings “palaces of learning.” Number 2: Design. The look of the building is important. But the operations and maintenance unlock indoor-air-quality wins and gives the students teachers and staff the respect that they deserve. Number 3: Local and state healthy-school policies will require honesty and bravery. Tracy celebrates healthy schools and, more importantly, gives hard-hit districts the courage to say, “Hey, can you help us out?” Here is “In the Room with Tracy Washington Enger”.

[“Sparkle and Swirl” fades out as Erika comes in.]

Erika Eitland: Alrighty. So we’re so thankful to have you on. Our big hope for Inhabit—which is this podcast we’ve invited you to today—is really about helping bring together this intersection of research and design and policy and how do we learn from each other so that we can make the necessary change. And the reason I was so excited to have you on is because you’re very aware of the change that needs to be made, you’re also making that change, and you know who is doing the hard work on the ground as well. So with all of these incredible hats on, Ms. Tracy, we want to know: Why is working on indoor air quality just so important to you? 

Tracy Washington Enger: Thanks, Erika, it’s great to be here. And to get to share this this conversation. And really, my passion for schools started as a Peace Corps  volunteer. And that’s really kind of how I backed my way into government as well. I taught at a school in West Africa, and discovered there that every parent, no matter where they are in the world wants the exact same things for their kids. They want an opportunity for them to have the best education possible, in the best environment possible, so that they can have the best outcomes possible. Everybody just wants a chance.

Everybody wants their kid to be able to do a little bit better than they did, right? And we in this country, have invested in that dream, in that belief from the beginning. You know, when we started out as a country, the first thing that we did was, you know, build a school and build a church, often it was the same building. Right? We have invested in that. So for me, when I have been able to see the impact that the educational facility has on all of the outcomes that we’re trying to achieve, academically, performance-wise, health-wise, recognizing that, you know, hear it all the time. But it’s so true. That where kids learn is just as important as what they learn. And what I’ve seen is that that school building is really a part of the curriculum. It is part of the pedagogy that is going on for those students. And often, it is really true that it has a direct impact on how successfully educators are going to educate, and how successfully students are going to matriculate through the educational process. So I’m just committed to making sure that the environment not only doesn’t impede their ability to succeed, but it supports and amplifies their ability to succeed. So that’s where my passion lies. 

Monica Kumar: So you spoke about your experience as a Peace Corps volunteer seeing the impact of these buildings on education. Was there a moment where indoor air quality really started to rise above? Was there a pivotal moment or how did that realization enter into the picture? 

Tracy Washington Enger: So, when I came into the Indoor Environments Division, we were just starting to launch Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools, which is our voluntary guidance for schools to help them put in place comprehensive indoor air quality management programs. You know, when I got it, I saw all the pieces. I was like so many people out there, I knew there were all these pieces. And we were trying to bring them together and create this, you know the story about the importance of the indoor environment. But then, we actually started going into schools. So we so we did what government does, right? We created some guidance, and we thought we were being super innovative. And we were right. Because instead of putting it in a book, you know, we put it in this cool box that had Velcro, and you opened it up, and it made this very satisfying “shhk” sound, right?

[Erika and Monica, in unison laugh]

Tracy Washington Enger: And inside, all of these checklists and wheels and things that we called it an action kit. It wasn’t just guidance, it was an action kit, right?

Monica Kumar: Very action oriented.

Tracy Washington Enger: Yes, very action oriented. And we expected these things to just fly off the shelves. And when they didn’t, we were flummoxed. Right? We’re like, but we know you need this because the Government Accounting Office told us that you need it. And we know that schools are suffering from deferred maintenance, we know that you have indoor air quality problems, why aren’t you playing with our kit? And so we did this really crazy thing for government. Where we actually went and like talked to people. And we started going out into the schools and the school districts and once we started to actually see the condition of schools and talk to the folks who were managing these facilities, the urgency for me, then it became personal.

You know, I remember going on a tour. So more directly to your point, Monica, I remember going on a tour. And we were with one of our partner agencies, I believe it was with folks, we’re working with them the American Lung Association, this particular school also had a preschool and it was in the basement. It was a headstart in the basement of the building. And it was, egregious. Everything that we were trying to address mold and moisture issues, pest issues, we opened up a cabinet and we know that everyone’s trying to do the very best they can. And so what do you find there, you find pesticides, we found cleaning products, we found all kinds of things that just should not have been available to preschool children. And it was just this stunning moment where we realized, you know, this is real, this is real. And one of the women who was there with me on this tour from ALA grabbed my arm, and she looked at me and she’s like, “people send their babies here”. And they do, they entrust, we entrust, our national treasure our youth to these buildings. So it’s real, you know, this is real stuff. 

Monica Kumar: I love this example. Because this is something Erika and I talk about often is, you know, you can produce as many toolkits and resources as you want. But what is that barrier between that knowledge and the implementation? So what did you guys learn when you were out there in the field? What’s the barrier? 

Tracy Washington Enger: Oh, gosh, yeah. So that’s a great question. And we did learn a lot. So there are a number of barriers that are out there, right? And people often will say, Oh, it’s the money. It’s the money. It’s the money. Well, no, not so much.

Because when you have an indoor air quality crisis, when someone finds mold, or you lose a child to an asthma attack, all of a sudden, the money is there, the money shows up, right? in arrears of things happening. So how do you get money to show up proactively? How do you get the money to get invested? How do you get the resources to get invested?

And so it was really important for us to be able to move people from knowledge to action, once we got folks to actually accept the kit, a kit on the shelf does us no good. They need to be able to take action on it. And so again, we went out and we started to get feedback from the actual school districts. And we talked to the people who were succeeding, who were actually using it, we’re putting it into action, who were getting results. And we said, okay, so what are you doing, and they told us and what sounded like 1000 different actions actually fell into a handful of buckets. And the power of where we’re positioned in a federal government program is we could talk to lots of school districts, and we could get lots of information back. And then we could codify that information, put it together into a system. And so when we started to see these patterns emerging, we did this other powerful thing, which was name it.

Monica Kumar: Wow

Tracy Washington Enger: Naming things has power. So, we took all of these, what appear to be disparate actions that people were taking, and we categorized them, and we named them and we put them into a system and then we gave it back to the community. 

Erika Eitland: And what were some of those buckets? 

Tracy Washington Enger: Aha, so thank you for asking. So those buckets became What we call our Framework for Effective IAQ Management in Schools, and we named those buckets, key drivers. And you’ll recognize them because they are basically the elements of continuous improvement: to organize, communicate, assess, plan, act, and evaluate. 

Everything that people were doing out there to be successful fell into one of those buckets. It was sort of like a Rosetta Stone that became our language for comprehensive indoor air quality management. We could then coach school districts around that. We created champions from our school districts who would go out and talk to other mentor school districts and say, “Oh, well, that sounds like an assessment issue. Here’s how you use the kit to address that”. “Oh, that’s an evaluation issue. Here’s how you use the kit to address that”. And so it really was the roadmap for moving into action.  

Rachael Dumas: Hey, it’s Rachael, again, I’m jumping back in here. Because right in the middle of this interview, we lost Tracy’s line. When she comes back in, you’re going to notice that she sounds a little bit different. But she’s still the same Avenger. The interview picks back up with Erika asking Tracy, who’s using the EPA’s Rosetta Stone to make their IAQ sing. 

Erika Eitland: Tracy, you were sharing all this great information about this action kit and what was a part of it? Who are the great people who have started to use this? Who are the rock star people that you are working with now who are continuing to teach you?

Tracy Washington Enger: So, we started to identify some of our rockstars, there were these pockets of excellence that were going on out there. And the quicker we could shine a spotlight on them, the quicker we could replicate the success that they were having. And so we created an awards program, and people started to kind of come out of the woodworks right? And what they didn’t realize was part of our nefarious plan around the whole thing was once we handed you that award, man, did we make you work for it. 

[Erika and Monica, in unison laugh]

Tracy Washington Enger: But people didn’t work hard enough for us. So we couldn’t ask too much of them. And believe me, we tried. But we saw people in the network today who were original award winners from 15 years ago, who I can pick up the phone, you know, I can pick up the phone and call my friend Diane Rhodes in San Antonio and say, “Hey, can you mentor this other school district?” Or “can you get on a webinar for us and talk about asthma and indoor air quality?” and she’s only too happy to do it. So, we started to fashion those folks together in a group where they could support one another and support other school districts around the country. And we called them our faculty. And that faculty group then grew into when we started doing our webinars, our master class group folks, who attend all of the webinars and are seeking this information so that they can help not only their school district, but other school districts around the country. So, we have worked really hard to harness that rockstar energy. 

But the other thing is, we often focus on the people who are doing the best because they are award winners. And because they are exemplary programs, we want to put them out front, but the school districts who are really challenged, who are really struggling and are willing to put themselves out there with all of their struggles and all of their issues so that they can receive that help, and that they can be that kind of model to others as well. They are rockstars too, because it takes a lot to have that bravery, to come forward and say, “Look, we’re struggling”, right? And some of our bigger school districts…

Erika Eitland: A lot of vulnerability. 

Tracy Washington Enger: Exactly, exactly. One of the hardest things that we have faced is that very thing because this is where people entrust their children. We’re invested in our schools. And, often, when there are problems going on their school districts are afraid to bring them out into the open because, you know, they’re afraid that they’re going to be faced with the torch bearing villagers showing up, right? They’re afraid that the media is going to drag them through the mud, valid fears. Often these are valid fears. 

But what we have told them is bring everyone in, bring them in close, be honest, tell the truth as fast as you can, and have a plan in place. To offer people a seat at the table to help co-create a plan to address your problems because they’re not just going to go away. And you want to be the one that finds your problem. If you’re a school district that has an issue going on, especially with indoor air quality, you want to be the one to find it. And you want to be the one to share it and tell those school districts who have been brave enough to step into that space are really amazing rockstars as well. 

Erika Eitland: I feel like so often that fear of well we don’t have the budget or we don’t have the time, the leadership the ability to address this when we’re trying to deal with other fundamental challenges in our schools that that holds us back from making real movement. There’s a very interesting sort of political landscape ahead of us with a lot of federal and state dollars becoming available to K-12 schools. How are you feeling about this? You know, is this the moment we’ve been waiting for it to kind of lift the veil and have that resource at our fingertips? 

Tracy Washington Enger: Oh, Erika, this is our moment, we are at this incredible period of time right now that is driven by circumstances that we would never have chosen. We would never have chosen to be in a pandemic of this magnitude, and to have our schools at the epicenter of it. But, what COVID has brought into stark relief is the fact that our schools are so much more than just a place that people come for academic instruction, they are at the heart of our communities, and the deferred maintenance that we have experienced in schools that kicking the can down the road. Not recognizing the importance that the physical environment has on the other elements of learning, and health are all kind of coming home to roost right now. But it also is providing this amazing opportunity. There are resources that are coming from all of these different channels. And I will say I think one of the most exciting things is happening is we are hyper-focused on providing the best opportunity that we have for our students. And for the staff in the schools. We all are focused on the same goal here the money that’s coming through Department of Ed through the American Rescue Plan, they are collaborating with us, they’re collaborating with CDC, CDC is putting out the health guidance to help schools reopen and stay open safely. They’re turning to EPA to say, okay, when it comes to the indoor environment and indoor air quality, how do we all preach the same message and make sure that we’re providing that net of support, this is a moment like I have never seen before, when it comes to the level of collaboration that we have as a federal family and inviting in our nonprofit partners to do the same, the urgency issue has been created for us and that was how we live into that moment to move people past the urgency of responding to COVID. To do all the things that we have been saying to do for the past three decades, when it comes to indoor air quality in school to put those things in place for lasting and sustainable health, academic and facilities outcomes. This truly is our moment to do that. 

Monica Kumar: I’m so energized and excited about, as you said, you know, we’re here because of the circumstances we would never have chosen. But the call to action couldn’t be more clear, especially you know, at firms like ours, at Perkins&Will, where we placed health at the center of design, which sounds obvious, but historically has not been the case for our fields for the last 200 years. And so if health is at the center of design decisions, I’m wondering what does the future state look like? You know, we’ve got the money, we’ve got the resources and the political will, like you said, so what would indoor air quality look like in these schools you’re working with? What is your sort of moonshot goal for your division? 

Tracy Washington Enger: [laughter] You know, I love the moonshot terminology, because I really believe that every student, every staff person should be learning and working in a pristine palace of learning. What happens in schools is magical. I mean, the fact that anyone ever learns to read reading is such an abstraction, the fact that it happens, it’s almost alchemy, right? What we do in our schools is magic. It should happen in temples that should happen in palaces. And that should be the case no matter where a student lives, no matter what they look like, no matter how much their parents make, they should have equal access to a clean, healthy, productive environment. Because the fact of the matter is, for 1000s of students, 10s of 1000s of students across this country, their school is the cleanest, healthiest, safest place, they are going to spend time. And so we have this huge obligation there. My dream, my moonshot would be that as a community, as a federal family, as a nonprofit family, as a school stakeholder family, we create a student-centered educational and health home. Where we put the student at the center of an array of services that address all of their needs, and that we create a physical environment that supports that and I see it happening more and more. At CDC, the WSCC model, the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child model is what we’re doing at EPA, but really that student-centered educational home would be my moonshot. 

Monica Kumar: Wow, Tracy, this is amazing. For those of us who have this sort of traditional mentality of the kid takes the bus, they go to school, they learn and they come home, you’re describing something that’s way beyond just clean air, you’re describing a rethinking of what a school is, why is that necessary? Why can we no longer just think of schools as a place to learn a set of skills? 

Tracy Washington Enger: Because, I don’t think it ever has been just that. I just don’t think that we have recognized and approached it. So when you think about the fact that 10s of 1000s of children receive their primary nutrition at school, when schools shut down, we saw it happening, right? There was a scramble to figure out how do we get these kids fed? Right? How do we get them taken care of? 

We have to think about now how we build or rebuild or retool our schools to reflect the fact that they are student-centered educational homes. We have school-based health centers that are delivering primary health care to students. We have meal programs that are providing the primary nutrition for hundreds of 1000s of kids across the country. So what then? How then? Do we need to create our learning spaces so that they’re integrated in a way that supports all of that? What does that mean, in terms of, you know, indoor air quality? What does that mean, in terms of the way that we’re building these facilities? And not just to meet those kinds of needs, but also the way we are learning, the way we are teaching students is totally different. If it’s not going to be 30 kids in a room with a person at the front with all the answers. If we’re talking about place-based learning, if we’re talking about problem solving, if we’re talking about how we’re able to put kids together in little learning pods and get the most out of this educational environment, what does that mean, then for how we’re building our facilities? What we’re putting in them, you know, how the the HVAC structure is, right? How are we creating a space that is going to advance the 21st century learning environment? 

Erika Eitland: What is your definition of clean and pristine? Like, if you were to get into the weeds with us? What would you want all of us to do so that as we think about the next 50 years of our school buildings that we’re building today, how do we protect their indoor air quality and environment? 

Tracy Washington Enger: One of the things we learned early on is, if you’ve seen one school, you’ve seen one school. And we have all of this guidance, and we have the hierarchy of controls and processes we want to put in place, but every one of them has to be individually tailored to the specific needs of the school district and really at the most granular level, to the specific needs of individual schools within that school district. And that is the work that we really haven’t done. That we’re starting to do now. 

So really, that administrative control of getting to know your school building in relation to the occupants who are going to be in it, and all of the systems that are working there together. And that really means understanding your HVAC system, understanding how it was built, what it was meant to do? You know, what it is you’re delivering, but also bringing together everyone who was impacted by indoor air quality, which is everyone who breathes in the school. Unfortunately, what we often find is you have the facility person over here doing their job, and the custodial head over here doing her job, and the energy manager over there doing their job, and never the twain meets. 

From the beginning, getting everyone together at that table and really hashing out okay, as we make this one change in this department, what is the impact is likely to have on these other systems? When you’re deciding what furnishing you’re going to put in or what flooring you’re going to put down but you’re not talking to the custodial staff about the cleaning and maintenance of that flooring, then maybe you’re trying to solve one problem, but creating another set of problems right.

Erika Eitland: We need a virtuous cycle. 

Tracy Washington Enger: Ah, indeed.

Erika Eitland: Where we all are kind of working together. We’ve talked about a lot today about equity and about where are we going to go from here? Is this time for a moonshot moment but also something that is soaked in reality? We have money resources, political will people now know that this is a really important time for our schools and let our school buildings have an important impact. If we’re going to have systematic virtuous cycle change who needs to be at the table? So that we’re really excited to kind of move forward into the next big thing. 

Tracy Washington Enger: When we started the Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools program, one of the first things that we identified was the need for an interdisciplinary team who was going to be executing this work. That’s one of the steps that people want to just jump over all the time, because we’re not accustomed to really talking with one another across disciplines. And now that we’re in the situation that we are trying to come, reopen our schools after COVID essential but expendable is what I’ve been seeing, right? And folks who were not at the forefront of the conversation are now in the crosshairs of reopening our schools. 

Monica Kumar: Yes. 

Tracy Washington Enger: So, when we see the most successful school districts operating, and achieving academic results, health outcomes, and maintaining fabulous facilities, what we see is that they really have worked to bring everyone together from all disciplines within that district, but not only within that district, but from all disciplines within the community as well. 

One of our most recent webinars, we featured our friends at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. And they have this model where public health leaders, education leaders, their community leaders, they bring them all together around and in-school asthma program that addresses indoor air quality that addresses their public health issues. They have truly brought everyone to the table. And they’ve had remarkable results in both improving their school facilities, but also reducing their rates of asthma. And more and more than what we’re starting to see is a real community-based effort that is worthy of the community treasure that our schools are. If nothing else happened, but everyone who is invested in that school, everyone recognizes that no matter what your job is, no matter what your position may be called everyone who deals with schools is an educator, everyone who deals with schools is a healthcare provider, everyone. From the custodian to the superintendent, everyone’s an educator, everyone’s a health care provider. So we need them all at the table. 

Erika Eitland: Amazing

Monica Kumar: One thing we recognize is, you know, we’re talking about what we do at work. But this is not just work, this is a calling, this is personal. So now that you know what you know about how essential air quality is to our health, our livelihood, lifespan, how does this influence the way you live your personal life and how you raise your two boys? 

Tracy Washington Enger: [laughter] You know, I just have a whole different level of expectation than I did before. I think that as a nation, we have allowed this lowered expectation of what our school facilities are supposed to be. We allow it to happen. And it shouldn’t be that way. So I have a whole different level of expectation. I expect excellence. I expect a healthy environment. I expect a clean environment. I expect an environment where teachers can bring their time and their treasure, and they can impart that in the most powerful way. I think that we need to be holding our expectations to a higher level and holding all of those including myself at EPA accountable for making that happen. 

Monica Kumar: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tracy Washington Enger: So yeah, we deserve the best and we can provide it.

Monica Kumar: I love that answer on so many levels. Because you know, you made this toolkit and you made a roadmap. So you know that these moonshot goals are achievable, that we can expect more, it’s not too much to ask. Part of the reason that we have this platform here is we want everyone to know that you can expect more from your schools, and you don’t have to settle, because it’s not too much to ask. And so I’m so grateful that you’re sharing that empowering message for us to end on.

Tracy Washington Enger: Quick story.  I think that really illustrates that

Monica Kumar: Please, yes.

 Tracy Washington Enger: When we started giving out our awards across the country. We went to this one school district in Texas, and whenever EPA shows up, of course, you know, they bring out all of the staff and they want to show us all of their, you know, their great stuff. And this school district. I mean, it really was phenomenal. They had really they’ve done the work, they had done the work. And they had us meeting with all of their different staff folks, because they’re like, these are the people who really made this award possible. 

And I’ll never forget we were sitting there with all of their custodial staff and their head custodian was this tremendous Latinx woman. And when we started talking about I said, Well, tell me about what you do. And she says, “Well, the main thing that we do is we take care of our kids with asthma. Because the way that we clean and the things that we use, and how we clean has a real impact on asthma triggers. And so we want to make sure that it’s the healthiest environment for those kids. Because if the kids with asthma are taking care of, then all of the kids are taken care of”. 

I was expecting this response that was going to talk about the protocols for cleaning, because they had this beautiful cleaning training center within the school. I thought she was going to talk about, you know, the training aspect or, you know, their surface and fomite cleaning protocol that they have, because they had all this great stuff in play. She went straight to health, she went straight to the kids with asthma. And she went straight to the connection between what they do as a custodial staff and the impact that has on those students and student health. And I was just blown away. 

[“Sparkle and Swirl” fades in.]

There are all these heroes, and sheroes out there doing this work at that level. And recognizing the impact that they’re having. So all of us can recognize it. All of us are capable of figuring that out. 

Erika Eitland: Tracy, thank you so much for your time. This has been so fun. We are going to bug you again because this is just the beginning. And we will be talking soon, I am sure. 

Rachael Dumas: Tracy Washington Enger is a public health leader with the Indoor Environments Division of the U.S. EPA. And that’s it for In the Room With. To learn more about the history and impact of indoor air quality in schools, check out episode three, “Putting the I in IAQ.” Annnnd that’s it for Design Is a Public Health Intervention, the pilot series of Inhabit, Perkins&Will’s brand-new podcast about the power of design. Subscribe, rate, and review wherever you get your podcasts. And send us a voice memo at inhabit.podcast@ perkinswill.com. What do you think design is? We’ll get back to you in our next series. 

[“Sparkle and Swirl” ends.]

Monica Kumar: Inhabit is a production of Perkins&Will. I’m Monica Kumar.

Erika Eitland: And I’m Erika Eitland. Check out our show page at inhabit.perkinswill.com for the show notes, music, and links to all the resources we mentioned on this episode. And follow us on Insta @perkinswill.

Monica Kumar: Lauren Neefe is our executive producer and edits the show. Anna Wissler is our art director and assistant producer. Mixing and sound editing by Threaded Films. Music courtesy of Epidemic Sound, and a special thank you to Julio Brenes for the illustrations you see on our website. 

Erika Eitland: We’d also like to thank our advisory board, Casey Jones, Angela Miller, Pat Bosch, Yehia Madkour, Kimberly Seigel, and Rachel Rose.

[Beats and claps get louder] 

PW Chorus:  Uhhhh, People, first and foremost. Places. Power. Design. Change. Now. 

[On final beat clap and “Now,” a snap echoes into an empty room with a rumble underneath]