Bloomberg’s CityLab Ι Sept. 25, 2020

This fall, the usual back-to-school anxieties have been coupled with a new one in the U.S., as wide swaths of the populace are desperately asking if their child’s classrooms can provide any level of safety. In many major U.S. cities, public school buildings remain fully or partially closed for in-person instruction due to the ongoing risk of coronavirus infection among students, staff and their families.

It’s a calamity that is not exactly as unprecedented as it appears to be. For many Americans, especially poor ones and people of color, American public schools have never been safe places to learn.

The Covid-19 pandemic is layered atop a wider public health crisis: educational infrastructure that is in such bad condition that it threatens the health of students. In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 46% of public schools had conditions that contribute to poor indoor environmental quality, according to a Harvard University study. Asbestos, lead paint, unsafe drinking water, and insufficient heating and cooling are fixtures of public school districts nationwide. In the U.S., 36,000 schools need to replace or upgrade their HVAC systems, according to a Brookings Institution report. In 2017, the American Society of Civil engineers graded U.S. schools at a D+, and it’s estimated that the national investment in public schools falls short by $46 billion a year.

“There’s been school districts and parents complaining for decades,” says Erika Eitland, a research analyst with the architecture firm Perkins and Will, who has a Ph.D from Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health and was one of the authors of the Harvard report. School health concerns may be new for white, middle-class parents, says Eitland, but when they’re raised by poor people of color, they’re often not responded to. “This has been overlooked for a very long time,” she says.

Indeed, deficient schools in the U.S. overwhelmingly serve students of color. Eligibility for free and reduced lunches varies dramatically by race, and schools with higher rates of free and reduced lunch students are consistently older, are more likely to contain legacy pollutants and are less likely to have nurses. Last year in Chicago, teachers went on strike to force the district to commit to hiring nurses for every public school. In 2018, more than 60% of U.S. schools didn’t employ a full or part-time nurse, according to the National Association of School Nurses. Because environmental racism rarely stops at the school door, schools serving Black and Latinx kids are also more likely to be located in areas suffering from air pollution. Beyond the right to a healthy school environment, these health risks negatively impact student performance and cognition.

The issue is often exacerbated by the multiple roles school facilities must play in poorer, BIPOC communities. “This is where they get their food, access to healthcare and act as community centers,” says Brooke Trivas, a principal at Perkins and Will, which has emphasized education architecture since its founding. For those who design new schools and maintain existing ones, the pandemic is ruthlessly exposing the scale of this often-unseen public health dilemma — and, education advocates hope, focusing more attention on what can be done to fix it.

“You Put a Kid in This?”

As an environmental scientist with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Jerry Roseman is intimately familiar with how bad schools can get. He performs site inspections, tests for lead and asbestos, and developed a mobile app to help teachers and staff report unhealthy conditions. The approximately 250 buildings in his district need $4.5 billion to deal with deferred maintenance alone, says Roseman. Across the country, the National Center for Education Statistics estimates that U.S. schools need $197 billion of investment, or $4.5 million per school.

In his career documenting conditions in urban schools, one axiom has become clear. “If you’re poor, Black, or Brown in our cities,” Roseman says, “you get the shit end of this.”

Poor conditions can quickly snowball, Roseman says, especially in older facilities in underinvested communities. Take, for example, the proliferation of asthma in Philly schools. Back in the 1980s, a broken window in a Philadelphia school slammed on a substitute teacher’s hand; as a result, district officials decided to bolt many windows shut. The resulting poor ventilation increased humidity, encouraging mold growth. In poor districts like Philadelphia (with more than 60% of kids coming from low-income families), meals are often served in classrooms, because of cafeteria overcrowding. The crumbs left behind lure rodents and other pests, adding another allergen to the mix. Pests corrode and breach walls and ceilings, which leads to water infiltration, fueling more mold. As the Philadelphia Inquirer documented with its Pulitzer-finalist “Toxic City: Sick Schools” series, the city’s classrooms ended up with a potent stew of asthma triggers. Nationwide, asthma is leading cause of absenteeism for students, the CDC says, with 13.8 million missed school days each year, and education employees report the highest levels of work-related asthma in the nation.

The toll such conditions can take was made tragically clear in 2013. Laporshia Massey, a student a Bryant Elementary in West Philadelphia, was sent home after having a severe asthma attack at the school, where there was no nurse on duty, and died soon after. Roseman visited the school after her death. “The conditions in that building were so outrageous it was offensive,” he says. He saw evidence of rodents, lead paint, water leaks and crumbling plaster debris on the floor. “You don’t need to have any expertise to look at it and say, ‘Are you kidding? You put a kid in this?’”

Policy drivers reinforcing these catastrophic failures are the same ones that promote all kinds of inequality in schools: Public sector austerity (school capital funding got less money per pupil in 2017 than in 2000) and funding structures determined by local property taxes and per-pupil attendance. Low-income areas typically lack the tax base needed to fix unhealthy conditions, and are often punished by funding formulas in certain states that reward attendance. In those states, if kids in unhealthy schools are frequently absent due to illness, that leaves districts with even less money, trapping the remaining students in deteriorating environments.

The coronavirus pandemic now stands to magnify the gap further, many education advocates fear, with crowded, often poorly ventilated public schools in low-income neighborhoods remaining closed due to health risks, leaving students to struggle with the challenges of online learning. Meanwhile, facilities in more affluent areas — often private schools — are open and serving students.

The Healthy Promise of “Green Schools” 

There’s a massive school data gap, too. To make all schools safe, Eitland says, school administrators needs metrics on indoor air quality and CO2 levels as a proxy for ventilation — especially critical for containing an airborne contagion like the coronavirus — along with information on acoustics, lighting and other environmental factors. But the last comprehensive national survey on schools was 20 years ago, she says. Her Harvard report made two recommendations in this direction: establishing a national school infrastructure assessment, and National Director of School Infrastructure.

One state that does have a better understanding of their school health gaps is Massachusetts, thanks to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), a quasi-governmental authority that partially funds school building projects across the state. The authority offers districts money based on a sliding scale that grants more funding for areas with higher rates of poverty and lower wealth and income levels. Every 5 to 6 years, MSBA surveys the condition of schools in the state. Matt Donovan, MSBA director of administration and operations, says it’s “soup-to-nuts. We’re looking at every system, every roof, every boiler.” For example, the last survey in 2016 showed that nearly a quarter of the public schools in the state lacked air conditioning.

There are some national legislative fixes on the table. The Rebuild and Reopen America’s Schools Act, passed by the House of Representatives and currently stalled in GOP-led Senate, would provide a $100 billion grant program that targets high-poverty schools, and a $30 billion bond program for repairing and renovating school buildings that pose a health risk.

Such a bill could sponsor a proliferation of “green schools” — facilities designed to meet high environmental standards, with student health at the forefront. Many prioritize natural light and ventilation and outdoor learning space — features that have gained new appreciation in the Covid-19 era. One 2010 example is Gloria Marshall Elementary School in Spring, Texas, designed by SHW Group (now merged with Stantec). The LEED Gold-certified structure features a science garden, pond, above-ground rainwater cistern, and geothermal heating and cooling, all integrated into the school’s curriculum. For an elementary school in Buckingham County, Virginia, the design team at VMDO began by authoring a report on healthy eating and physical activity design guidelines, then delivered a campus filled with gardens and trails, where ergonomic furniture, hidden nooks and flexible classroom design encourage active movement and exploration.

But the actual utility of such places depends on where they’re built and what students they serve. Eitland describes a “ceiling effect” that limits how much green schools aid student performance, because they’re often built in districts that are affluent and high-performing already. “You already have the highest performers who are now in the highest-performing buildings,” she says.

The true value of healthy, well-designed schools becomes most clear when they’re put in communities that lack abundant resources. That’s rare, but one example that’s currently under construction is Morrow High School, in Morrow, Georgia, outside of Atlanta. Morrow High School is predominantly Black, with more than 90% of students eligible for free and reduced lunch. Perkins and Will designed them a $90 million school funded by a special sales tax, due to be complete in 2022.

The Morrow school is designed to reinforce a pervasive culture of health. The building’s linear, sinuous form is an example of “active design” that encourages physical exertion. Students “will get exercise just from walking from one side of the building to the other,” says Barbara Crum, of Perkin and Will’s Atlanta office. The school is carefully sited on top of a ridge so that it cradles and preserves a seasonal wetland, with space for an outdoor classroom and cross-country trails weaving through the campus. Crum says this outdoor space is hotly anticipated by faculty. “They never [knew] that they could get something like that,” she says. “The science teachers really [grabbed] onto it.”

And no matter how many tadpoles are gathered for science labs, by simply offering healthy outdoor spaces, the school takes a step toward addressing a pervasive environmental health inequality: Whiter, more affluent neighborhoods have access to more and better quality park space. The Morrow campus also offers two covered outdoor patios that can be used as al fresco classrooms.

Architecturally, avoiding the most dire health complications for kids at school is a low bar. You doesn’t necessarily need a $90 million LEED-certified facility; you just need proper maintenance and upkeep — windows that can open, classrooms that are clean and dry and free of toxins. Asbestos removal has more to do with policy than design. Will other parents pondering the need for outdoor classrooms because of Covid-19 care about the disastrous condition of schools across town their kids don’t go to?

Eitland hopes that the pandemic — and the mass school closures that millions of families continue to endure — has the potential to amplify her message about the critical importance of educational infrastructure. “I think it’s bringing an awakening to a whole [new] parent population that hopefully will sustain and support other schools that have been demanding help for a long time,” she says.

Trivas agrees that, right now, parents and teachers are “in an uproar about making buildings healthy. I do think we have the ear of our communities a lot more because of Covid.” The next question is: “How long will it last?”

Roseman, in Philadelphia, fears that a laser-focus on Covid-19 could just as easily obscure other school health concerns, since the standard menu of virus fixes doesn’t address things like lead or asbestos. Those are threats left behind by decades of chronic neglect; they risk being forgotten anew once the current crisis passes. “If you really mean to say that you want to go back to a school that’s safe,” he says, “focusing exclusively on Covid doesn’t do that.”

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