Infrastructural Crisis in Schools Is Harming Student Health and Learning

Only a few years ago, it was considered a fluke for temperatures in New England, the mid-Atlantic states and the Pacific northwest to reach 85 degrees Fahrenheit (85 °F) before the official start of summer. As the 2021-2022 academic school year came to an end, thousands of students and teachers struggled to remain comfortable in hot classrooms.

Some public school districts considered extreme heat a danger. closed earlyDuring hot May and June days. The situation reflected the gross neglect of public infrastructure for the 55 million mostly Black, Asian and Latinx kids who attend the country’s approximately 130,000 K-12 programs.

“Even before [COVID-19], we knew that we had an indoor air quality crisis in schools that were built 50 or 100 years ago,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) told Truthout. “You can’t teach or learn in freezing cold or scorching hot buildings. This is a public health issue, an equity issue.”

According to a 2021 Government Accountability Office Report, 54 percent of United States public schools need to upgrade or replaceMultiple building systems. What’s more, the repairs extend beyond heating, ventilation and air conditioning to include maintenance (or placement) of water filtration and condensate drainage systems, roof replacement, mold and asbestos abatement, and the installation of CO2 sensors and high-efficiency particulate absorbing filters to monitor air flow and quality.

COVID, of course, has accentuated the need for the refurbishment of the nation’s schools. Teachers and students face the greatest challenges in the immediate future because of excessive heat and extreme cold.

As the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), an agency of the U.S. Department of Education, reports, “When the body is subjected to thermal discomfort, a person’s brain will be distracted by the body’s signals. When you are in an environment that’s hot or cold, maintaining homeostasis becomes your mind and body’s priority, making it harder to concentrate on school work.”

Ideally, the IES states, classroom temperatures should be between 68°F and 75°F during the winter and between 73°F and 79°F during the summer.

Teachers know that learning can be disrupted when it’s too hot or too cool. A 2020 article published by Nature Human BehaviorIt was noted that children in elementary school who don’t know how to manage their temperature are most affected by excessive heat. Additionally, students who do not have a permanent home, or are living in areas that are too hot, are more likely to fail academically. Test preparation and studying are often less challenging when they are uncomfortable.

Combating rampant inequality

Hillary Linardopoulos (legislative representative of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) calls the conditions in most public schools a disgrace. “Many of Philly’s 217 public schools are really old,” she begins. “Their average age is 75, a full 30 years older than the average age of public schools in other parts of the country. More than 80 buildings have no air conditioning and every time there’s a heatwave, students and staff suffer.” But, she adds, it is not as simple as buying window units for classroom use; before air conditioning can be installed in these buildings, they will have to undergo costly electrical upgrades.

And that’s not the only infrastructure deficit plaguing Philadelphia’s schools. “Some schools have severe leaks and it is quite literally raining in hallways and classrooms. There are also problems with degrading asbestos, flaking lead paint, sewage leaks and mold,” Linardopoulos explains.

The most frustrating part, she says, is the fact that the neglect dates back at minimum 25 years. This deferred maintenance will now cost $4.5 billion to fix.

Additionally, funding disparities — wealthy Pennsylvania districts spend an average of $3,778 more per student than poorer districts like Philadelphia — has become central to a lawsuit brought by the Public Interest Law Center, The Education Law Center and the law firm of O’Melveny and MyersOn behalf of six school districts and a group parents. The goal of the campaign is to force the state to ensure educational equality.

The suit was filed in 2014 and is currently moving through the courts. It is supported by the Fund Our Facilities Coalition, a network that includes more than 70 community-based organizations as well as progressive public officials. Linardopoulos described the group. TruthoutThe plaintiff, who is demanding that the inequity is addressed, is pushing both courts and the state legislatures to correct the imbalance.

“Pennsylvania currently has a budget surplus of $13 billion,” Linardopoulos continues. “There is $8 billion in a surplus revenue fund, $2 billion in a rainy-day fund, and another $2.2 billion in federal COVID relief money that is available. There is plenty of money for the necessary improvements, but it’s a matter of political will. Republicans continue to insist that our school facilities have sufficient resources. One lawmaker actually stood up and said, ‘If a child is on the McDonald’s track, they don’t need algebra classes.’ This is what the union and the Fund Our Facilities Coalition are up against.”

Baltimore is currently facing a similar equity struggle. Like Philadelphia, educators in “Charm City” estimate that the longstanding neglect of school buildings has caused a $3 billion repair backlog for the city’s 159 schools.

Cristina Duncan Evans is a former high school social science teacher and is now on e-board of the Baltimore Teachers’ Union, told TruthoutMany schools in Baltimore are without water, not only because of temperature issues. “Others,” she adds, “have no hot water and some are full of mice and pests.”

She explains that 26 schools were closed a decade ago and that a promise was made to replace them with new, state of the-art facilities. “This did not happen,” she says. “While some new schools were constructed, the number promised was not realized. This has led to the destabilization of some of the poorest, Blackest and Brownest areas of the city.”

She also said that the new buildings were not well-constructed and could not withstand severe wear-and-tear. “Many are already falling apart,” she says. “Some have windows that can’t be opened; staff parking lots are absurdly small; and people still can’t drink the water in many buildings. We’ve also received reports that the air filters were not changed once during the 2021-2022 school year and are clogged with dust and dirt. This aggravates the health of people with asthma and respiratory conditions.”

Another issue, Duncan Evans says, is the city’s reliance on an outdated building as a temporary “swing space” when schools are being renovated. “Whenever I go into this building I feel as if the air is cutting up my lungs,” she says. “It’s obviously unhealthy. Worse, if they do the remediation of existing schools as poorly as they did the new construction, we will have another big problem to deal with.”

“[The union is] constantly negotiating around conditions,” Duncan Evans continues, “and we constantly raise our concerns at the bargaining table.” But, because Baltimore’s schools are not controlled by the city, but are instead under the control of the Maryland Department of Education, she says that the union often feels stymied.

“Staff are frustrated and exhausted,” she says. “Every teacher is juggling multiple demands. Yes, a teacher may see that her classroom closet is full of mice. But she must decide if she is willing to fight this battle. In most cases her answer will be ‘no,’ and she will instead decide that it is more important to focus on the learning of her students.”

And it’s not just Baltimore and Philadelphia that are in crisis.

Social studies teacher Chicago Teachers UnionDavid Marshall, a delegate, feels fortunate that he is not faced with rodents and shoddy construction. He faces a different problem.

“Carl Schurz High School was constructed in 1910 and has landmark status so we can’t alter the facade or add air-conditioning to many of the classrooms,” he told Truthout. “About 10 years ago, the administration installed two 365-ton centrifugal chillers, but when it’s really hot out, the chillers are not enough. They’re inconsistent. In some parts of the building the chillers work well, in other parts they don’t. Still, it’s tricky because all repairs or upgrades need to follow guidelines that preserve the history and beauty of the building.”

Schurz is, of course, an anomaly. A 2016 survey showed that Schurz is an anomaly. approximately half of U.S. school buildings have already reached the half-century mark.

The National School Superintendents Association could provide additional relief to this historic building. The Association members recently requested that the Department of Education grant them two additional years to plan, complete, and purchase air filters and cleaning equipment, and to improve HVAC systems. They plan to do it with the assistance of the $190 billion in federal COVID relief moneyIt has already been allocated. Union activists see this as an administrative nod for improved conditions.

“We are pushing hard to strengthen the role of unions and worker groups to build better systems of accountability,” AFT’s Weingarten told Truthout. “We have to make sure we have a seat at the table to push for a high-quality union workforce to build new schools and make repairs. We’re being very loud in our demand for better health and safety in every single public school in the country.”