Passing the Clean School Bus Act can help protect our children's health and our planet
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Every day, 26 million children ride on school buses. The central promise of our busing system is simple: Your children will have a free and safe ride to school. But that promise comes with a significant caveat.

Ninety five percent of the buses our children ride are a relic of the past — still burning diesel fuel, even as diesel vehicles represent just 3 percent of all automobile sales in the United States. The air inside the school buses is so redolent with these diesel fumes that Connecticut experts found the air inside the cabin to be five to 10 times as polluted as the communities around them.

Every time a child boards a school bus, they increase their risk of asthma, cardiovascular disease, hospitalization and in the long term — dementia. In addition to the physical repercussions, there is an increased risk to cognitive development. Recent studies show riding on diesel school buses can stunt academic performance, particularly in English and math.

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Children in underserved communities face even higher threat from this pollution. In high poverty, majority minority districts, a frequent cause of absenteeism is asthma-related hospital visits.

This grim reality reflects statewide trends in Connecticut, which show that Hispanic and Black children and teenagers are respectively four to 5 1/2 times more likely than their white counterparts to go to the emergency room because of asthma. Additionally, many Connecticut cities where people of color reside face disproportionate levels of air pollution. In fact, a 2014 study from the University of Michigan found that five urban areas in Connecticut were among the worst in the nation for racial disparity in pollution exposure.

Replacing diesel school buses with zero-emissions buses is not only important for our health, it is crucial to our environment. School buses travel more than 40 million miles every year and are the nation’s largest form of mass transit. As we move forward with bold plans to modernize our infrastructure, while combating climate change, school buses must be a priority — not an afterthought.

I introduced the Clean School Bus Act in my first term in Congress with then-Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHere's why Joe Biden polls well, but Kamala Harris does not Immigration experts say GOP senators questioned DHS secretary with misleading chart Carper urges Biden to nominate ambassadors amid influx at border MORE (D-Calif.) to address this problem. The bill would create a $1 billion program at the Department of Energy to replace diesel school buses with electric buses over a five-year period. It would require the Department of Energy to prioritize applications from the lowest-income school districts, disproportionately affected by air pollution in their communities. Last month, I reintroduced this legislation with Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.).

Not only will this investment address the public health and climate crisis faced by our communities, it will also push electric and zero-emissions buses into the mainstream market, making them financially accessible to school districts that may have not been able to afford them before.

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While electric school buses can save school districts money over time from significantly reduced fuel and maintenance costs, the upfront cost of fleet replacement is prohibitively expensive for many. Currently, an electric school bus can cost up to $400,000, or 2 1/2 times the amount of a diesel bus. As a career educator, I can tell you with fidelity that it will be next to impossible for districts to raise that kind of capital. The Clean School Bus Act would provide grant money to cover some of the initial differences in costs.

If we truly care about the long-term health of our children and the planet, the replacement of diesel school buses is nonnegotiable. I am continuing to work with the Biden administration and congressional leadership to ensure that we prioritize national deployment of clean school buses — to advance environmental justice and help in communities most affected by air pollution. With firm resolve, we can pass this measure as part of a sweeping infrastructure package.

Today, the yellow school bus is a symbol of our lack of action in response to climate change and health crises, but it does not have to be that way. Passing the Clean School Bus Act will ensure our children are safe on their rides to school, and we are responsible stewards of the planet.

Hayes represents Connecticut’s 5th District and is a member of the Education and Labor Committee.