Aging Schools Create Dangerous and Fragile Learning Environments

On one of the coldest days of winter, with a wind chill of one degree below zero, a class of kindergartners at a Reading, Penn., elementary school sat shivering in their 40-degree classroom wearing their coats and hats.

Their teacher called Reading Education Association (REA) president, Bryan Sanguinito, but there was nothing he or anyone from the district’s facilities unit could do. The school had only one operating boiler, and there was no money to fix the other. Whole sections of the school were literally left out in the cold.

“Who would want to come to school when it’s that cold in the classroom?” asks Sanguinito. “Who could learn in those conditions?”

Unfortunately, those aren’t the worst conditions in the Reading School District. Leaking roofs let rain cascade into classrooms “like Angel Falls,” says Mitch Hettinger, a gifted support education teacher in the Reading School District and REA’s vice president, referring to one of the state’s waterfalls. “Teachers have to move rooms. They have to be flexible and ingenious to get the job done. It’s amazing the kids are as good as they are given the deplorable conditions they put up with.”

Sanguinito, who also teaches orchestra, says the schools were so damp that mold spores began to grow on some of the kids’ violin cases.

“Mold and mildew exacerbate allergies, leading to more absenteeism, and I’ve had teachers who have never had respiratory health problems suddenly develop asthmatic symptoms,” he says. “Would the politicians who cut funding to our schools ever consider working in these conditions?”

Reading’s aging school buildings drew national attention last year when CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, along with NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen, visited the impoverished Pennsylvania district—and schools in New York and Connecticut—to examine the impact of indoor air quality on students and school employees. His two-part documentary, “Toxic Schools,” found that aging schools around the nation are making children sick.

NEA Members’ Take On IEQ
NEA’s Health Information Network (HIN) has addressed the issue of poor indoor environmental quality (IEQ) for more than a decade through its IEQ in Schools Program. Earlier this year, NEA HIN conducted a random survey of NEA members nationwide about IEQ in their schools.
Of those surveyed:
• 62 percent have experienced IEQ problems at school.
• 94 percent said IEQ issues are important to them.
• 63 percent reported IEQ contaminants to school administrators.
• 51 percent believe IEQ issues affect their health.
• 53 percent believe it affects the health of their students.
• 54 percent say their school does not provide training to all school staff on IEQ issues.

“After the CNN special aired, people in Reading were in a state of disbelief that conditions could get so bad in our schools, and that it took the union to get the nation’s attention,” says Sanguinito. “Ultimately, it benefited the learning environment in one of our oldest schools, Southern Middle School. The roof was patched, moldy ceiling tiles were replaced, and fresh paint went on all the walls.”

When changing classes, students at Southern Middle School passed through an ancient, dark gymnasium. It hadn’t been used in years because of the crumbling floors, water-damaged walls, and the chunks of peeling plaster that fell from the ceiling. “I was a basketball coach for 25 years and remember times when a player would be dribbling the ball down the court and a huge piece of plaster would fall and explode,” recalls Hettinger.

Students still have to pass through the gym to change classes, but after the CNN documentary aired, the dangerous areas were fenced off to keep students safe.

The Reading School District is emblematic of a national crisis. An estimated 14 million American children attend public schools that are in urgent need of extensive repair or replacement and have unhealthy environmental conditions. Many older schools contain asbestos, lead paint, and dangerous levels of radon.

The improvements at Reading’s Southern Middle School, while temporarily helpful, are just “a Band-Aid,” says Hettinger. “They’re just kicking the can down the road.”

And many of the city’s other schools are in desperate need of major renovations to bring them up to code. But thanks to Gov. Tom Corbett (R-PA), who slashed education funding by $1.1 billion, the state doesn’t have the money to make the fixes.

“There’s a slow strangle going on by those seeking to privatize public schools,” says Sanguinito. “They say we can’t afford to replace or repair our schools, but we give huge tax breaks to the wealthy. It’s a matter of priorities. We need to organize and mobilize people outside of education. If the general public saw what was really happening in our children’s schools, they wouldn’t stand for it.”

What Can You Do? Take Action and Organize!
1. Notify your UniServ Director/Local Association about your concerns and enlist their support.
2. Form and train a local association indoor air quality (IAQ) or health and safety committee, meet regularly, and prioritize school building concerns.
3. Advocate for your school to implement an IAQ management plan, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s IAQ Tools for Schools (IAQ TfS) program.
4. Survey members and document building hazards and health-related complaints (gather information on the type of symptoms and hazards, and when and where they are occurring in the building.
5. Conduct a school walk through (using IAQ TfS checklists) making note of potential problems. Also take photographs. Prioritize areas that need immediate attention.
6. Enlist colleagues and the school nurse. Ask if they or their students are also experiencing health effects.
7. Read existing school board policy, contract language, job specifications, sampling methods, laboratory results, etc. Look at local regulations to determine if local agencies regulate IAQ.
8. Arm/educate yourself and the committee with information (i.e., data, sampling reports, statistics, research, and standards). These committees should have all the facts about the situation and the knowledge (through their research) to be the “smartest kid on the block.”
9. Partner with the community, including parents, fire departments, local health officers, state health departments, and members of the media.
10. Meet with all concerned parties—staff, administration, school board, parents, contractors, etc.—so that everyone can discuss the problem, and identify those who have the power to change things and correct the situation. Propose the creation of a joint association/district IAQ or health and safety committee.
11. Seek professional technical help, if necessary.
12. Follow up to ensure unsafe and unhealthy conditions have been corrected in the school in the short run, and develop contract language and district policy for the long term. Seek the support of allies and coalitions if the school district has still not taken action.

Learn more about IEQ at NEA’s Health Information Network.

Photo: Bryan Sanguinito