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School districts grapple with aging school buildings

HVAC and water contamination issues can affect student learning

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School districts grapple with aging school buildings

In Idaho, 60 percent of school district leaders reported “poor” or “fair” conditions in their schools, often comprised of older buildings, reported the Idaho Capital Sun in January. Gov. Brad Little said during his State of the State address that he personally saw sewage leaking under a school cafeteria. “Folks, we can do better,” he said. “The can we are kicking is getting heavier, and we are running out of road.”

Idaho schools aren’t alone in dealing with aging infrastructure. The National Center for Education Statistics released survey results last month that put the average age of K-12 public school buildings in the United States at 49 years. Many students attend older schools that often face infrastructure issues such as poor ventilation, neglected repairs, and mold, which can need thousands of dollars in repair costs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides guidelines for healthy schools, including maintaining proper heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems and replacing air filters. But in 2020, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that about 41 percent of U.S. public school districts required changes to their heating, ventilation, or air conditioning. About half of the schools the GAO visited were troubled by HVAC system problems such as leaks, which can result in mold or damage to floor tiles.

In a 2019 study, Harvard School of Public Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that nearly half of U.S. students attend schools in states that do not have programs or policies for testing for lead-contaminated water, a problem exacerbated by older school buildings and tight repair budgets. According to this survey, 44 percent of schools in states that do test found elevated lead levels in at least one water source at the school.

In 2021, the Philadelphia branch of the American Federation of Teachers released a report saying that the city’s school district incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars of repair costs due to moisture-and mold-related issues.

In nearby Spring-Ford Area School District in Montgomery County, Penn., Lauren Keifer has taught high school for 10 years. “A lot of these buildings have been around for a long time,” she said. “I would imagine that a lot of them in the city are probably some of the oldest ones.”

Aside from creating unhealthy environments, facility issues cause other downsides for students. A 2017 paper from the Public Policy Institute of California and Yale University explored a link between “the quality of school buildings and the quality of learning.” Broken climate control systems and other related issues hampered students’ focus on learning.

Karen Neitz, a K-4 teacher at Elizabeth B. Barth Elementary School in the Pottstown School District in Pennsylvania, said a lack of air conditioning distracted her and her students. “When I first started at Pottstown 26 years ago … our school buildings did not even have air conditioning,” Neitz said. The resultant heat made teaching and learning uncomfortable. “The teachers themselves were hot and you know how hard that is to function when you’re hot.”

As reported by The New York Times in June 2023, a heatwave forced several school shutdowns in Grand Rapids, Mich., Detroit, and Pittsburgh due to inadequate air conditioning. Administrators preemptively closed the district and canceled sporting events and after-school activities for health reasons.

Without funds, these infrastructure problems cannot be addressed. “I can’t speak for other school districts, but part of Pottstown’s issue is lack of funding,” Neitz said in relation to her school.

Mary Filardo, executive director for the 21st Century School Fund and a founder of the National Council on School Facilities, said that districts can save their aging school buildings with careful planning and funding.

Filardo said that fixing infrastructure issues in old buildings doesn’t happen quickly. “It is doable, but it is going to take complete intentionality and a level of transparency and cooperation,” she said. “It’s one of those shared problems and the resolution of it will be one that comes from the community.”

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