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. But as the 2021-2022 academic year drew to a close, thousands of students and their teachers found themselves scrambling to stay comfortable in sweltering classrooms.

Some public school districts felt the extreme heat was a danger and closed early on several steamy 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 replace multiple 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. Nonetheless, it is excessive heat, as well as excessive cold, that pose the most immediate problems for educators and school kids.

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 signals from the body. 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.

Indeed, educators know that when it is too hot or too cold, learning is disrupted. A 2020 article published in Nature Human Behavior noted that the impact of excessive temperatures is most severe for elementary school-aged children who do not yet know how to pace themselves. In addition, those without permanent homes, or who are living in spaces without adequate temperature controls, tend to do worse academically since studying and test preparation are typically less rigorous when a person is uncomfortable.

Fighting Rampant Inequality

Hillary Linardopoulos, legislative representative of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), calls the conditions of most public school buildings 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.

Most frustrating, she continues, is that the neglect goes back at least 25 years; this deferred maintenance will now require an estimated $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 Myers on behalf of six schools districts and a group of parents. The goal is to force state authorities to ensure educational equity.

The suit was initiated in 2014 and is slowly winding its way through the court system; it is supported by the Fund Our Facilities Coalition, a network of more than 70 community-based organizations and progressive public officials. The group, Linardopoulos told Truthout, is demanding that the inequity be addressed and is pushing both the courts and the state legislature to rectify 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 argue that our school facilities are adequate. One lawyer 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 facing a similar equity battle. 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, a former high school social studies teacher who is now on the executive board of the Baltimore Teachers’ Union, told Truthout that in addition to temperature issues, many Baltimore schools lack drinkable water. “Others,” she adds, “have no hot water and some are full of mice and pests.”

About a decade ago, she explains, 26 schools were closed and a promise was made that they would be replaced 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.”

Equally appalling, she continues, the new buildings were poorly constructed and were not made to endure heavy 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. So yes, a teacher may notice that the closet in her classroom is full of mice, but she has to decide if this is a battle she wants to fight. 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 and Chicago Teachers Union delegate David Marshall considers himself lucky that he does not have to contend with rodents, shoddy construction or contaminated water. But he faces a different dilemma.

“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, of course, is something of an anomaly. Nonetheless, a 2016 survey revealed that approximately half of U.S. school buildings have already reached the half-century mark.

But even this landmarked building may soon find additional relief thanks to the National School Superintendents Association. Members of the Association recently asked the Department of Education to give them two additional years to plan and complete work to improve ventilation, purchase air filters and cleaning devices, and improve HVAC systems. They plan to do this with the $190 billion in federal COVID relief money that has already been allocated. While the bulk of the money will be spent on hiring teachers, guidance counselors, psychologists, and custodial and technical staff, union activists see this administrative nod to improved conditions as a step forward.

“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.”