Dilapidated Buildings Increase Risk of COVID Transmission as School Year Begins

When third-grade teacher Sarah Adkins returned to her classroom at Pennoyer Elementary School in Norridge, Illinois, in August, she knew that she would be facing a slew of challenges — none of them related to curriculum or student achievement. First, it would be hot in the building. Secondly, the water fountains would be inoperable because they’d been turned off to protect against possible lead poisoning, and many of the toilets and sinks in the bathrooms of the 70-year-old building would be broken.

Windows would pose an additional obstacle. “We’re located near O’Hare Airport, so there is a lot of noise,” Adkins told Truthout. “Our windows are double-paned to help reduce the sound, but we can’t open them.”

This, despite raging COVID-19 infections — made worse by the Delta variant — and late August recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to utilize “layered mitigation strategies” to combat the virus. These strategies include universal masking and the vaccination of teachers, staff and kids older than 12; adequate ventilation, including working heating and cooling systems or in-room air purifiers; social distancing in classrooms and lunch rooms; frequent hand washing and sanitizing of high-touch surfaces including door knobs, desktops, writing implements and computers; and testing, contact tracing and quarantining when positive COVID cases are detected.

Turns out, this is easier said than done.

Indeed, U.S. public schools have been in sorry shape since long before COVID — and it’s gotten worse. A report published by the federal government’s Government Accountability Office (GAO) in June 2020 documented the burgeoning crisis, reporting that the structural integrity of 100,000 public schools was putting nearly 50 million kids and the more than 6 million adults who instruct, feed and clean up after them at risk.

“Fifty-four percent of public-school districts need to update or replace multiple building systems,” the report concluded. “Forty-one percent need to upgrade or replace HVAC systems.”

This, the GAO found, means that 36,000 schools are currently without adequate heating or cooling equipment. What’s more, the GAO documented a huge number of other deficits: faulty plumbing, poor interior and/or exterior lighting, bad electrical wiring, and unacceptable amounts of asbestos, lead and mold, among them.

A previous GAO report documented how, in 2018, an estimated 43 percent of districts had tested for lead in the school drinking water within the past two years, with an estimated 37 percent showing elevated levels.

Water fountains manufactured before 1988 are likely to contain lead piping — and a 2012 survey of public schools found that the average school building was 44 years old. “Most building systems, components, equipment, and finishes do not last this long,” the study, compiled by the 21st Century Fund, The National Council on School Facilities and The Center for Green Schools, concluded in 2016.

Other findings were similarly distressing. “One-sixth of the entire US population is inside K-12 public school buildings each day,” the groups concluded. “During a building’s life, districts will have to replace roofs, windows, doors, boilers, chillers, ventilation systems and plumbing and electrical systems.”

If only they could.

Where’s the School Infrastructure Funding?

As always, the issue is money, or the lack of it. Schools are typically funded by state, city and federal dollars, with the lion’s share of operating revenue raised through local property taxes.

In Norridge, Illinois, for example, property taxes have not been raised since 1992, and despite numerous attempts to generate money for the construction of a new school to replace Pennoyer Elementary — or make essential repairs to the existing structure — voters have repeatedly rejected attempts to increase property tax revenues through referendum-approved bonds, even with the elevated needs caused by COVID.

“We’ve gone door-to-door, made phone calls and given people a chance to tour the school and see the conditions for themselves,” Adkins says. “We’ve tried to convince people of the urgency, but people like low taxes. There are a lot of retirees here and a lot of people who don’t vote. Those who come to the polls apparently don’t see a problem with a STEM lab without running water.”

But as dire as these straits are, federal relief dollars earmarked for the school renovations — including upgrades needed to keep COVID at bay — may be forthcoming.

Both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) are pushing for congressional passage of the Reopen and Rebuild America’s School Act [S.96; H.R.604], legislation that will allocate $100 billion in direct grants and $30 billion in bonds to enable schools to upgrade their HVAC systems and replace environmentally damaging diesel school buses.

“The pandemic has caused America to see what educators have seen forever,” NEA President Becky Pringle told Truthout. “Students, especially if they’re Black, Brown or Indigenous, often attend schools with poor ventilation, leaky pipes or broken toilets. Many go to schools built more than 50 years ago and are predisposed to getting sick from COVID because they have pre-existing conditions like asthma that are exacerbated by the conditions in their classrooms and schoolhouses.”

Add in poverty, housing instability, hunger and a lack of consistent access to technology and you have what Pringle calls “a moral crisis.”

“We have to talk about all the challenges that our students are having and highlight how the virus impacts those whose parents either had no job or were working two or three jobs during the worst of the pandemic,” she says. “We have to make sure that their stories are told.”

As we shed light on deplorable conditions, Pringle tells Truthout, “we also have to focus on institutional racism and systemic economic inequities in schools that have not done right by their students. We have to care about all our kids equally so that they can move into their brilliance and thrive.”

Not surprisingly, AFT President Randi Weingarten wholeheartedly agrees with Pringle, but told Truthout that in addition, progressives need to call out lawmakers who have shown a “complete disrespect for children, educators and public education more generally,” and who are now putting students and staff in harm’s way by refusing to enforce COVID protections.

“People like Florida Governor DeSantis are irresponsible,” Weingarten says. “After Parkland, the gun lobby recommended new protocols for Florida schools that had nothing to do with gun safety and the governor was fully into it. Now, when it comes to COVID safety, he’s showing no concern.”

But despite her evident frustration, Weingarten remains cautiously optimistic about the release of federal relief money to mitigate unsafe conditions. “Some new federal legislation will get through,” she says. “I think we’ll see a big push to get the infrastructure, reconciliation and voting rights bills passed once Congress reconvenes. The fact that the rebuilt levees held in New Orleans during Hurricane Ida shows us the importance of robust infrastructure. Imagine if we had that kind of infrastructure to shore up schools, roads, bridges and families.”

Yes, imagine.

But until this comes to pass, the return to in-person learning will continue to be strewn with problems and roadblocks.

In Maryland, Capital Improvement Program Committee Chair of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs Laura Stewart says that long before anyone had heard of the coronavirus, Montgomery County was facing a backlog of large maintenance projects. “The last I saw we were about $600 million in backlog,” she told Truthout. “We also have a capacity issue and have been using portable classrooms — trailers — due to increased enrollment, and we will likely need to purchase more.”

Stewart adds that Montgomery County has already received some Recovery Act money which has been designated for the purchase of electric vehicles and an upgrade of water systems. “This,” she says, “frees up money for other projects,” such as mold removal and fixing malfunctioning HVAC equipment.

The school district, she says, is also grappling with how best to navigate meal times. “Parents are freaking out about their kids having lunch indoors,” Stewart says. “Yes, in nice weather, eating outside may be possible, but not every principal is willing to allow this. The fear is that kids will run off, which they say will require the hiring of additional monitors. Despite this apprehension, a few schools have purchased canopies and outdoor seating.”

Student security is also an issue in Florida, although it is playing out differently.

Florida parent and former teacher Kelsey Smit, now a curriculum developer who works from home, says that administrative policymakers in the metro Orlando area have barred teachers from opening classroom doors and windows. “Because of active shooter preparations that went into effect after the killing of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, teachers are supposed to keep all windows and doors shut. This protocol is still being enforced, despite COVID.”

Landmark Preservation vs. COVID

David Marshall, a social studies teacher and track coach at Chicago’s Carl Schurz High School, told Truthout that COVID has caused unprecedented concerns about historic preservation. Because the 110-year-old building he teaches at is a designated landmark, Marshall reports that the school has been unable to install air-conditioning units in the school’s front-facing rooms. Instead, they’ve had to utilize chillers. “They’re like giant refrigeration units that had to be brought in by helicopter and installed on the roof,” Marshall says. The upshot is that some sections of the building are cold, while others are not; heat is similarly uneven.

In addition, he says that pre-COVID, other needed upgrades and repairs were done piecemeal due to budgetary constraints. “We’ve been reactive,” he says. “At one point, the counseling office had to clear out so that black mold from leaks could be removed, and we’ve undertaken other mold and asbestos abatement projects throughout the building.” Still, he says lead pipes in some areas have not yet been replaced and “on stormy days there is a sewer smell in some places.” Now, given the respiratory nature of COVID, Marshall says that these problems have taken on a new urgency.

Meanwhile, concerns are mounting over the pace and location of Chicago’s school building remediation. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) will receive $1.8 billion in federal COVID relief money over the next two years, Marshall says, but it’s not clear what those funds will go toward. “CPS needs to be clear about what they plan to spend money on,” he says. “The Chicago Teachers Union has been demanding transparency, but so far there has been a lot of talk but very little disclosure from CPS.”

New York City schools — the nation’s largest public school system — also have a lengthy repair list, with many needed fixes to protect everyone’s health.

“Even before COVID, there was often no soap, hot water or paper towels in the bathrooms of my school,” English language arts teacher Selena Carrion, who teaches at PS 119 in the Bronx, told Truthout. “Students had to bring soap from home.”

But as troubling as this is, Carrion is most concerned about overcrowding. “We don’t have enough chairs and desks in many classrooms,” she says. “It makes social distancing impossible.”

Carrion emphasizes that in addition to COVID concerns, the lack of resources makes it difficult for the school to welcome its large numbers of immigrant and refugee students. “New kids are constantly coming in from Southeast Asia and the Middle East,” she says. “When we don’t have enough seating for them, it sends a terrible message about how much we want them to be here.”

For now, says Carrion, teaching remotely would make more sense than teaching in person under such dangerous and difficult conditions, especially when schools like PS 119 can’t ensure adequate space for socially distanced learning. Although she acknowledges that teaching and learning remotely can be difficult, she believes the health and safety of students and staff make it the most practical option. However, despite petitions and rallies by parents and teachers, the demand for remote learning has gotten no traction from the City’s Board of Education.

And it’s not just public-school educators who are aggrieved. Photographer and arts educator Amanda Adams-Louis taught in a community-based art program for New York City students of color this summer, and there, too, safety measures were largely ignored. “No one took responsibility for buying soap, toilet paper or cleaning supplies,” she told Truthout. “Hand sanitizer was not consistently supplied and we ran out of paper towels a few times. Since we were working with paint, graphite and charcoal, not being able to wash our hands was terrible. Our room was not cleaned very often, either. It made me wonder if white kids in Manhattan were treated better…. We deserved better.”

Teachers’ unions could not agree more. As COVID safety concerns persist, the NEA’s Becky Pringle stresses that the decisions we make today will reverberate for generations.

“Every decision made for our students and our schools is a political one,” Pringle told Truthout. “We have to center public education in equity in order to achieve excellence. Children are the most critical infrastructure we have.”