We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix our crumbling schools

We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix our crumbling schools
© Greg Nash

The pandemic has shone a light on a problem of immense proportions that needs an urgent fix: Our crumbling school infrastructure. 

A recent report on the state of our schools from the American Society of Civil Engineers paints the bleak picture in numbers: Fifty three percent of public schools need to update or replace building systems; 41 percent report problems with their HVAC; one third use portable buildings, nearly half of which are in “poor” or “fair” condition; and 13,000 schools haven’t even assessed their facilities in the past 10 years. And despite sending 76 million children off to school each year, the U.S. inexplicably does not formally collect data on the state of school buildings, where those kids spend half their lives.

Over the past year, Congress has passed multiple bills making up to $170 billion available for improvements in school infrastructure, including measures to improve indoor air quality. More funding will also be available through the infrastructure and budget reconciliation bills. We have a once-in-generation opportunity to correct the historic underinvestment in schools that would provide benefits across three dimensions: Pandemic resilience, student and staff resilience and climate resilience.

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COVID and many other infectious diseases are caused by viruses that spread through the air, with nearly all transmission occurring indoors. Building ventilation and air filtration are key to removing infectious aerosols from the air. But there is a problem: Schools were designed to bare minimum ventilation standards set decades ago. To put some numbers on this, four to six air changes per hour of “clean air” should be the target, but the current standard says three is acceptable, and in reality, the typical school only gets about half of that bare minimum.

There’s also more to good ventilation and air filtration than COVID. Study after study shows that better air leads to better student health, student thinking and student test performance

And there are gross inequities when it comes to indoor ventilation. In schools that are majority Black or Latinx, ventilation rates are lower than in majority white schools. Schools with a higher proportion of kids on free and reduced cost meals have lower ventilation rates than schools with predominantly higher income kids.

We should not lose sight of the fact that decades of neglect have made air quality only one of many problems caused by our poor school building infrastructure. Our schools are plagued by mold and asbestos, overcrowding and windowless rooms, undrinkable water, PCBs and other toxic chemicals in building materials, pest infestation and poor acoustics, and low-quality lighting.

Investing in our school infrastructure will also make us more resilient to climate change. From Baltimore, Md., to Columbus, Ohio to Seattle, Wash., we’ve already seen school closures due to heat just in the past few months alone. It’s a problem that’s going to get worse. Many of our school buildings in the north were built for cool climates — designed to trap and retain heat. In New York City, this year was hotter than normal, with 17 days above 90°F, but models estimate that we could have 56 days above 90°F by 2050. What will be the impact on schools and kids? Consider one study that looked at 10 years of test data from students in New York State and found that the likelihood of failing the end of year exam increased by over 10 percent if a student took the test when it was 90°F versus 72°F.

Whenever we raise the need to upgrade indoor ventilation and air filtration systems, this inevitably leads to important follow-on questions: Do healthier buildings with higher ventilation rates consume more energy? While at first glance, higher ventilation rates may seem to be at odds with energy conservation, simply tuning up a building’s ventilation and air filtration system (what is called “commissioning”) can save energy and improve air quality. We can also use energy-efficient technologies, like heat recovery ventilation, that removes stale indoor air while transferring heat to the incoming air so it’s not wasted. We need to get smarter about how and where we ventilate, leveraging smart building technology like real-time air quality sensors so we deliver air when and where it’s needed, rather than just dumping air into unoccupied classrooms and auditoriums all day.

There are evidence-based steps every school can take, including these from The Lancet COVID-19 Commission task force that focuses on safe schools: Checking HVAC systems to ensure they’re operating as designed; using real-time carbon dioxide monitors to verify ventilation performance; bringing in more outdoor air; upgrading HVAC filters; using portable air cleaners with HEPA filters; considering UV germicidal irradiation; and being extra cautious about using other technologies for which there’s less peer-reviewed evidence.

The case to upgrade our school indoor ventilation and air filtration is compelling, and yet few school districts have taken action. They’re already under attack by parents who are opposed to other pandemic-related public health measures, like masking. And many school districts lack the staffing and expertise to take this on. Infrastructure improvements take time, and school districts need to spend American Rescue Plan funding by 2024. Many believe that their school buildings are too old and not designed to allow for recommended upgrades. Moreover, ventilation and air filtration, in particular, are largely invisible. Upgrading a school’s HVAC system isn’t as sexy as paying for technology upgrades, staffing and lunch for all students.

The money to upgrade our school infrastructure is there. However, none of the bills passed by Congress includes any specific guidance or standards for schools to follow, so it is very confusing for school districts. Just as the Biden administration is deploying federal strike teams to help health facilities scale up treatment with monoclonal antibodies for COVID, we need federal school infrastructure strike teams. These strike teams could help school districts assess their infrastructure; come up with plans to upgrade their buildings and HVAC systems; solicit input from staff, parents, students and community; contract with local vendors to get the work done; and create indoor air quality, water quality and energy efficiency dashboards to improve accountability and make the invisible visible.

Is it all too much, trying to overhaul neglected school infrastructure to create healthy and green school buildings across the country that will be buffered against the next pandemic or crisis? This pandemic has already cost the nation tens of trillions of dollars. What if we spent even a fraction of a decimal point preparing for the nation’s future — our children’s future?

Joseph Allen, DSc, MPH, is associate professor and director of the healthy buildings program at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and co-author of the book, “Healthy Buildings.” Twitter: @j_g_allen

Céline R. Gounder, MD, ScM, is an internist, infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at the N.Y.U. Grossman School of Medicine and Bellevue Hospital. She is the host of the “Epidemic” podcast and served on the Biden transition COVID advisory board. Twitter: @celinegounder