Crumbling Schools Add Health Problems to Classroom Stress

Eighty percent of parents want greener schools filled with sunshine, yet many campuses are falling apart.
(Photo: KidStock/Getty Images)
Nov 24, 2015· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Among teachers, it’s known as the 2:30 headache, describing the pain that sets in after hours of breathing polluted air in an old school building or a temporary classroom. For Rachel Gutter—and educators and schoolchildren nationwide—it isn’t theoretical.

“My mom suffered permanent respiratory damage by working in a sick school,” says Gutter, the U.S. Green Building Council’s vice president for knowledge. A school administrator in metropolitan Washington, D.C., her mother had asthma and mold allergies, which were constantly irritated by the bad air. Gutter says one visit to a portable classroom triggered a particularly severe attack.

“Within minutes, she was hacking and wheezing like crazy,” Gutter says. “My mom had such a severe reaction that they called in the district,” had the air tested, found it was of poor quality, and put the school on a fast track for renovation. It’s not just teachers, she adds. Studies show asthma, an air quality–related illness, is the leading cause of student absenteeism.

That’s why Gutter is pushing the government to conduct a long-overdue assessment of the nation’s school buildings and refurbish the ones that are triggering illnesses in teachers and students. She’s backed up by a new USGBC survey showing an overwhelming majority of parents think an overhaul of the nation’s school infrastructure should become a national priority.

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According to the survey, eight out of 10 respondents support “green” schools—construction and renovation concepts that create airy, spacious, sunshine-filled environments—which enhance learning while saving energy and protecting the planet.

“Where our children learn matters,” says Gutter, who unveiled the findings at a green-building conference in Washington late last week. Education-conscious parents, she said, “will talk to you about the who and the what—the teachers and the curriculum—but they won’t talk to you about the where,” which can be just as critical.

“I’ve been in schools that feel like jails,” with high security, poor ventilation, and little natural light, Gutter explains. “I come from three generations of educators. I believe every child is entitled to a healthy, safe place to go to school.”

While studies have shown a school’s environment and student attendance and performance are linked, “we really don’t know how many of these schools are sick schools,” notes Gutter.

In 2013, the USGBC found that the last federal audit of conditions at the nation’s nearly 100,000 public primary and secondary public schools occurred in 1999—President Bill Clinton’s last year in office. Ignorance contributes to the problem, according to the USGBC’s report, and delays make the solutions more expensive.

“Our best guess is that it will take approximately $271 billion to bring school buildings up to working order and comply with laws,” states the report. “If we add to that modernization costs to ensure that our schools meet today’s education, safety, and health standards, we estimate a jaw-dropping $542 billion would be required.”

The government, according to Gutter, estimated that at least 15,000 schools “had air that was literally unfit to breathe. Asthma in some schools technically reached epidemic levels.”

Updated evidence isn’t hard to find. A 2000 National Education Association study found that approximately one-third of the nation's school buildings need upgrades or replacement because of poor ventilation systems, old, filthy carpets, and chronic mold. A 2014 National Center for Education Statistics analysis found, on average, U.S. schools are 44 years old, haven’t been renovated for about a decade, and require major repairs to improve from “fair” to “good” condition.

Gutter says she has witnessed schools with mold clinging to the walls, air filters covered with grayish-brown “fuzz,” and schools that on rainy days leak like faucets. Yet “we speak so little about it,” she says, mostly because school districts with shrinking maintenance budgets often don’t have the money to fix a leaky roof—and teachers fear being disciplined or fired for complaining.

While poor building conditions are commonplace in underserved urban districts, poor rural schools have problems too.

“The poorest students generally attend school in the poorest facilities,” Gutter says. “There’s a direct alignment. They simply don’t have the tax base they need to provide the funding.”

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Some areas have received the message. In Washington, the city has directed its school facilities administrators to make green buildings a priority, despite some controversy, and Philadelphia officials have committed to environmentally friendly spaces for kids to play and learn. But Gutter believes there’s more work to be done, and she intends to spread the word.

“We have ignored this issue for a long time. Part of the problem is no one owns it,” she says.

Schools are “either the first- or second-largest category of infrastructure across the country—neck and neck with roads, highways, and bridges—and yet we don’t see a single person whose full-time job is dedicated to making sure where our children learn is healthy and safe.”