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School buses are hurting our kids — here's how we change that

School buses are hurting our kids — here's how we change that
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The hardest workers in our society — people in construction, road maintenance and firefighting crews, among many others — keep close watch on the carbon dioxide levels in their work areas. When carbon dioxide exposure hits 5,000 ppm (parts per million), those workers are likely to suffer from nausea, headaches and poor concentration — even permanent impairments to cognitive function. At that limit, federal officials say those workers can insist on safer conditions.  

When a kindergartener sitting in the back of a school bus is exposed to that same level of carbon dioxide, there’s no recourse. And carbon dioxide concentrations hit that level in school buses on a regular basis.

On top of that, children who ride school buses are exposed to particulate matter from diesel fumes, which has been linked to certain cancers. Imagine the gray, toxic skies over major roads in places where pollution goes unchecked — the places where a nagging cough is normal and outdoor exercise is next to impossible; where, doctors say, it’s hard to find people with healthy lungs.  

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The environment in which children in the U.S. sit whenever they board a diesel school bus is similarly harmful. Especially for young children, this pollution impairs brain development and even has a direct, negative impact on test scores.

The technology to solve this problem exists. Cities across the country are switching to electric fleets. But when it comes to having a clean, safe commute to school, children — even those as young as 4 or 5 years old — often come in last.

So why are diesel-powered school buses still the transport of choice for most U.S. school districts? Why haven’t school boards intervened? Why don’t parents insist on a change? And if they have, why hasn’t anything happened? 

As with most challenges facing public schools, the issue is money. Very few school districts can afford to replace even the diesel-powered buses they own, which can cost around $100,000 each. Electric school buses currently cost about three times that. And with little demand, school bus manufacturers aren’t incentivized to make electric options more affordable.  

But right now, we have a remarkable opportunity to address this problem head-on: The $2 trillion American Jobs Plan proposes replacing at least 20 percent of the nation’s 480,000 diesel-powered school buses with electric versions, with an investment of $20 billion over to five to eight years covered by the plan. The program is called Clean Buses for Kids and would be housed at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with support from the Department of Energy (DOE). 

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The investment could amp up the electric school bus sector and prompt manufacturers to scale their operations and bring electric bus prices closer to diesel buses, making it more affordable for all school districts to fully convert their fleets. The transformation would likely inspire others around the world.  

While electric school buses are more expensive to buy in the near-term, they cost less to maintain. They’re quiet and easier to drive. Plus, they are symbols of technological advancement — real life examples of engineering in motion — that can inspire students toward careers in the sciences.   

Some school districts are already making the switch. In Montgomery County, Md., the school board approved a $1.3 million annual contract in February to begin replacing its fleet of more than 1,400 buses by 2035. The first 25 electric buses will be on the road this fall, if all goes according to plan. That project is funded in part through a grant from the Maryland Energy Association.

In the Miami-Dade school district, the board committed to converting its school bus fleet to electric after a student measured high levels of carbon dioxide both inside and outside a school bus, as part of a science project.

But those grants won’t cover the full cost of replacing school bus fleets for those districts. And the districts with the most dire need for electric buses are those in rural, often poor areas, where longer routes mean that kids spend more time in fume-filled school buses. The way to solve this problem is for Congress to approve the American Jobs Plan — and ensure that the $20 billion needed to electrify school bus fleets around the country is included.  

No responsible parent wants to expose their children to toxic fumes on their way to school. It shouldn’t be partisan to support legislation to protect them and our future. 

If we want our children to succeed academically and become future leaders, if we want them to play sports and share picnics under clear skies, and if we want our children to have clean air to breathe on their way to school, we need to electrify our school buses — all of them. It’s common sense. 

Erika Myers is the Electric School Bus Initiative interim director at the World Resources Institute and was recently named as a 2021Top Woman of Electric Vehicles. 

Chelsea Sexton is an electric transportation pioneer, working since the 1990s to make the movement of people and goods cleaner, safer, and more accessible. 

Monica Araya is a distinguished fellow at ClimateWorks and special adviser to the UK High Level Climate Action Champion for COP26.