Across the country, school districts are furiously debating whether to keep schools open in the face of the recent omicron surge. Perhaps no place has received more attention than Chicago, where the teachers union has been locked in a stalemate with the Chicago Public Schools over Mayor Lori LightfootLori LightfootChicago students protest for virtual learning, COVID-19 stipends School infrastructure is a children's human rights issue — it's time the US acknowledges that The Hill's Morning Report - Biden champions filibuster reform, but doesn't have the votes MORE’s insistence upon in-person learning. Likewise, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel CardonaMiguel CardonaOn The Money — No SALT, and maybe no deal Over 80 lawmakers urge Biden to release memo outlining his authority on student debt cancellation The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks, Senate balks MORE has continued insisting schools remain open, recently saying “We know what works, to keep our schools and our staff safe … We should be using those mitigation strategies. That along with vaccination for our students to keep them safe and testing protocols will keep our schools open full time in person.”

These calls for in-person learning during the omicron surge rest upon an assumption that schools can keep students, teachers, and staff safe. But how can we seriously expect effective mitigation of infectious diseases such as COVID in schools — something that requires investment in appropriate ventilation, testing, and infrastructure for distancing — when many of our school buildings are decades behind on repairs and upgrades? In fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers finds that “53% of public school districts report the need to update or replace multiple building systems, including HVAC systems”.

While testing and vaccination are at the crux of the national debate over school safety, the physical school buildings to which our children are returning are also an important, yet too often overlooked, part of the equation. And the unfortunate truth is that U.S. school infrastructure is in terrible condition, generally.

ADVERTISEMENT

The sorry state of our public-school infrastructure is largely the product of a historical lack of acknowledgement that the state of educational infrastructure directly affects student health and student educational outcomes. Indeed, while there exist in the U.S. a multitude of curriculum and achievement standards that are routinely debated, established, monitored and tweaked, there is no corollary for schools’ ability to maintain the health and safety of their students. For example, in 2018, the Trump administration’s Federal Commission on School Safety punted on leadership regarding the issue, giving us SchoolSafety.gov instead of real, enforceable standards.

Internationally, there exist important standards for the condition of educational facilities. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) states children have the right to the “highest standard of health” and that facilities play a role in this. Universal standards like those in the UNCRC are critical for establishing priorities. Without strong standards such as human rights, we can too easily become tied to that which is possible in the short-term rather than what is necessary in the long-term.

Shamefully, however, the U.S. is the only UN member state not party to the children’s rights treaty. This is not because our children are so well off that we don’t need the treaty.

In 2020, the U.S. was ranked 36th out of 38 on child well-being in advanced countries by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). 2021 well-being data from Save the Children show the U.S. “badly trails nearly all other advanced countries in helping children reach their full potential…Countries with similar scores include Bahrain, China, Montenegro, Qatar, Russia and Slovakia.”

The debate over in-person education is a stark reminder of the need for a significant reprioritization in how children and schools are viewed. Things like the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act of 2021 (H.R. 604) are welcome, but we must go further in recognizing that safe educational infrastructure is a human right, not something to provide if budgets allow. Because of the education budget chain from DC to states to municipalities, it’s an issue that needs reprioritization at all levels.

Recognizing that our educational infrastructure is an inherent part of our children’s human rights, and not just a financially painful obligation, would help force a long-overdue reckoning over the place of these issues in our public budgets. It’s time for both national minimum standards for school infrastructure and joining the rest of the world’s commitment to children by joining the UNCRC.

David L. Richards is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Human Rights at the University of Connecticut and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.