New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)
Indoor air quality in schools must be a top priority
The health of students, teachers and staff in our schools depends in large part on the quality of the air they breathe. In Connecticut, unfortunately, many students and adults are at risk and the concerns go far beyond the pandemic.
Hot temperatures, high humidity, mold and poor air quality undermine health and academic performance. Even before the pandemic, sick schools were a problem. Today, the importance of air quality has never been more critical, especially to help prevent the spread of disease such as childhood asthma and various respiratory problems that strike children and adults. Concerns about air quality have only intensified with the elevated infection rates of the delta COVID-19 variant.
Schools have faced severe challenges and even been forced to close because of no air conditioning with classroom temperatures in the 80s and 90s. It is likely that in the future we will see more days with extreme heat, not less. These unsafe conditions make students and staff sick. Schools in every region of the state are affected, but asthma rates in children are highest in urban areas where schools are often underresourced, and less likely to be air conditioned.
Studies show that unhealthy air and hot temperatures have a domino effect leading to higher rates of illness for students and adults, increased absenteeism and reduced academic achievement. A study at Harvard University regarding excessive heat and lack of air conditioning concluded, “When the heat is on, student learning suffers.”
The Connecticut Education Association has consistently advocated for all the state’s public schools to have high quality air cooling, heating and airfiltration systems. In a recent survey, 97 percent of teachers said ventilation and air quality was a top safety priority, but only 27 percent said it was being addressed at their school.
There is a straightforward solution to protect the health of students and adults who spend hundreds of hours in our schools each year — fix the deficient air-handling systems that make our schools unhealthy.
Connecticut already provides protection for some. State regulations require a minimum of temperature of 65 degrees and a maximum of 78 degrees — for pet stores. “Housing for animals shall be adequately ventilated in such a manner to minimize drafts, offensive odors and moisture condensation and to provide for the health and comfort of the animals at all times.” Believe it or not, there is no such regulation to protect the “health and comfort” of children and adults in schools.
In recent years, an obstacle to upgrading schools — even just to the level of pet stores — has been cost. Some at the state level have been unwilling to broaden the use of school construction funds for something as necessary as fixing outdated and harmful ventilation systems or providing air conditioning. That excuse has vanished, however, with the tremendous influx of federal funds to Connecticut — $1.1 billion — for enhancements, support and capital improvements to our schools. With a small fraction of the federal education funds, Connecticut has the resources to make every school healthier, safer and available year round, including for summer school and community uses.
It is time to take action. Gov. Lamont and the state Department of Education should prioritize federal funds for the installation or repair of air conditioning and improved air quality for all schools in need. SDE should coordinate with school districts and the Department of Administrative Services to ensure that all districts upgrade air quality. SDE should also use discretionary grant funds to assist school districts that receive little to no federal funds in addressing their air quality systems.
Connecticut has the means to fix and improve the overall health protections of every school. There is no excuse for leaving any school or community behind when it comes to air quality that promotes health and academic performance. At present, Connecticut provides more humane standards for pets in pet stores than we do for children and adults in schools. We can and must do better.