Poor ventilation. Chemicals. Mold. Pesticides. Radon. Lead. Asbestos. The list is long and a little scary. In the U.S., one third of school buildings are in need of extensive repair or replacement. Research reports suggest that students attending schools in poor condition score 11 percent lower on standardized tests than students who attend schools in good condition. In Maryland, Governor O’Malley and the General Assembly have made historic investments in school construction and renovation, but problems persist.
- Age of buildings Older buildings are more apt to have outdated ventilation systems and older roofs.
- Lack of money for renovation and maintenance Failure to regularly maintain buildings invariably causes problems.
- Overcrowding A typical school has four times as many occupants per square foot as an office building, with ventilation systems designed for a smaller population.
Organizing for healthier schools
According to a 1995 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), nearly half the nation’s schools have poor indoor air quality (IAQ). Since then, the EPA has created the Indoor Air Quality Tools for Schools Program, a comprehensive resource to help identify, correct, and prevent indoor air quality problems. Jennie Young, a senior program coordinator for NEA’s Health Information Network (HIN), considers it the model for local associations organizing around IAQ issues.
“One way Local Associations can make schools healthier and safer is to create indoor air quality or school safety committees to organize members at the local level to address IAQ concerns school-by-school,” Young said. “Without school-level activism, poor IAQ won’t get the visibility it needs to be fixed.”
In 2010, HIN debuted a new online IAQ course through the NEA Academy to help local associations organize. “What’s Your IEQ? A Roadmap to School Indoor Environmental Quality” is a 4.5-hour interactive course for school staff about how to identify, prevent, and resolve IAQ issues. It covers the basics of IAQ, including the factors that affect IAQ and the effect of poor IAQ on performance and health; common pollutant sources; and how local associations can organize around IAQ and advocate for an effective management plan in their school or district.
“We’ve gathered expert presenters on green schools, performance, asthma and IAQ,” Young said. “Plus members and UniServ staff share how they’ve successfully created safety and IAQ committees and included IAQ language in local contracts. Organizing members, who are as affected by poor IAQ as much as students, is a very effective way to get local districts moving on this issue.”
Organizing for IAQ
Steven Brooks, president of the Calvert Association of Educational Support Staff (CAESS) and a member of the NEA and MSEA boards of directors, recruited a five-member team of CAESS building supervisors. They partnered with a team from the county’s school district to attend one of the EPA’s annual conferences focused exclusively on IAQ issues in schools.
With a CAESS safety committee in place and a solid relationship with his school board, Brooks said that getting the response they need when IAQ issues come up is no problem. “If a student or teacher reacts to an IAQ problem in a classroom or school building, the superintendent wants the air tested as much as we do. Asthma is a serious problem and we’re all here to help stop it,” Brooks said. “None of us hesitate when it comes to children or teachers and their health.”