America’s School Infrastructure Can’t Graduate: 4-Year GPA of 1.0 (D)

Say you are a parent, and in four years your child has barely managed to raise their grade from a D to a D+. It’s not the progress you want. And, while there are all kinds of ways to look at GPAs and grades, that is the grade given to the nation’s school infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) in its 2017 report, up a notch from the D it awarded in 2013. As this blog has previously noted, failing buildings can damage children’s health and ability to learn.

Tuesday, April 4th, is the 15th annual National Healthy Schools Day, a good time to reflect on this public health crisis facing all school children. We join with more than 40 NGO partners to observe that every school day, 55 million children in grades PK-12 (along with the adults who teach and care for them), spend their time in school buildings that are likely to fail building inspections and to be out of compliance with federal and state health and safety regulations. The number of children goes up to 61 million if you include child-care centers around the country. ASCE’s periodic assessment should be a reminder to President Trump and Congress about repeated pledges to invest in infrastructure, including schools. These investments must be a critical part of the nation’s economic development strategy. What is more important than the education, health, and safety of our children?

As described in our December 2016 blog, a coalition of state and national public health, child health, school health, and environmental groups created a proposal on children and infrastructure for the new administration and the Congress. It calls for ramping up federal programs to educate school leaders and personnel on how to take better care of facilities (no more D’s!) and how to make smarter decisions when renovating schools. To protect children with exposures in schools, it also calls for scaling up environmental public health at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC-NCEH). Jerome Paulson, MD, Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics and Environmental Occupational Health at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, has pointed out that, “Environmental health threats in child care centers and in PK-12 schools compromise children’s health and learning, yet there is no federal, state, or local agency that is funded and staffed to protect children in these settings from environmental health hazards.”

On infrastructure, the coalition’s proposal calls for investments to fix low-wealth schools and to reduce environmental threats to health and learning (lead in paint and water, asbestos, and PCBs) and reduce indoor dampness; it also calls for energy retrofits for better heating, ventilation, and lighting; clean school buses; and safe routes to school.

In my state, New York, we are in the early implementation stages of a new program that is spurring other states to act on lead in school drinking water. Last year, the state legislature unanimously passed, and Governor Andrew Cuomo signed, the nation’s first state law requiring all public schools to test at the tap for lead in water. The results are shocking. Over 240,000 school taps (outside of New York City) were tested by the end of 2016. Of those, over 14 percent reported lead contamination above the state action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb). (New York City, the nation’s single largest PK-12 system, is completing testing this spring.) As of early 2017, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports more than 15 additional states taking action on this issue.

Recognizing that the safe level of lead for children is ZERO, New Yorkers were disturbed to see reported levels up to 2,000 times the 15ppb in one Manhattan school. Under the state law, any tap found above the state action level must immediately come out of service. That’s the correct first step. But what happens next? What do children drink? The law requires the state to reimburse schools for testing and remediation and for schools to provide free, potable water. Issues being discussed now are the transparency of the state reporting process, details on remediation, and troubling reports of children not having potable water in school.

This brings us back to the conversation about investing in our national infrastructure. It’s good to invest in roads and bridges, even better to invest in public transportation. But what if these transportation systems are delivering children to schools that make them sick or impair their learning? And, since there are more schools than zip codes , and school retrofits are typically done with local labor, shouldn’t everyone interested in job creation and the local economy take quick advantage of these job-creating opportunities to put more money in circulation in the local economy?

Let’s remember all the children in school and child care on this 15th annual National Healthy Schools Day. Let’s urge elected and appointed government leaders at all levels to invest in the public health of children and in school and child care infrastructure, where 61 million of children spend a third of their young lives.

Claire Barnett, founder and executive director of the Healthy Schools Network, is a 2017 recipient of the William K. Reilly Award for National Environmental Leadership given by American University in Washington, DC.

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