Lots of lead paint and plaster coils around the walls of some schools in downtown Philadelphia. Staff at a Florida school carry sandbags and manually clean drains during heavy storms. A 1930s boiler is still used to heat a school in Rhode Island.
The snapshots can be found in a report last year from the Government Accountability Office, the first comprehensive picture of the state of dilapidation of school facilities since Congress tried to draw attention to the problem nearly 25 years after finding that a third of schools were in a seriously impaired condition. .
The situation has only worsened since then in many schools in downtown and poor rural areas, according to environmental engineering experts and local officials. And some fear that even an influx of money from the federal government will not be enough to remedy the problem.
“When I became principal, the most glaring example of disparity was infrastructure,” said Nikolai Vitti, who was appointed director of the Detroit Public Schools Community District in 2017. The poor conditions included ceiling tiles water stained and rotting and repeated school closings. due to the “oven” -type conditions during the warmer months and the lack of heat in the winter, Vitti said.
“It’s an infrastructure problem in third world countries, not something we should be thinking about in America,” he said.
Nationally, the backlog of school maintenance and repair projects is at least $ 500 billion, according to estimates from the nonprofit 21st Century School Fund.
The Biden administration’s US bailout would inject $ 193 billion into crumbling schools across the country. In guidelines it released last month, the Education Department said schools can use the money for “repairs and upgrades to school facilities to reduce the risk of virus transmission and exposure to environmental health hazards, as well as inspection, testing, maintenance, repair, replacement, and upgrade projects to improve indoor air quality in schools.
But he warns of new construction projects that could draw money from “essential needs and initiatives” and warns that large renovation, renovation and new construction projects could take time and, therefore, be. unachievable, as relief funds must be committed by September 2024.
In addition, much of the money should be used to address learning loss and to hire teachers and support staff. Some districts are also under pressure to add security devices, such as bulletproof windows and door barricades, after numerous school shootings.
In short, funding is nowhere near enough to overcome decades of neglect exacerbating health and safety risks, mainly in minority and underserved communities, according to local officials.
In Detroit, where school buildings are on average 66 years old, the money will cover half of an estimated $ 1.5 billion infrastructure backlog, Vitti said.
One of the most striking illustrations of inequality in America is the dilapidation of many inner-city schools. Most of the funding for schools is tied to local tax bases, not equitable distribution formulas.
“It truly is a national tragedy when you start to look at these schools and understand what kids are going through,” said Jerry Roseman, environmental engineer for the Philadelphia Teachers Union. In many buildings conditions have deteriorated so badly that districts are devoting all they have to maintenance to prevent schools from “failing catastrophically,” Roseman said.
Daniel Peou, principal of Horace Furness High School in Philadelphia, said he no longer felt safe in the school building. He said he and others developed unexplained rashes after spending time inside.
“The truth is, no, I don’t feel comfortable being in there and I spend most of my days there,” Peou said. “But at the same time, I don’t want to [students]to be at the house. I want them to be here. This is where they get their education. “
Maria Tobing, a student at the school, remembers a time when “the whole ceiling collapsed”, almost affecting a teacher.
“We were all shocked and I couldn’t concentrate during my test,” Tobing said.
Philadelphia schools need $ 3.5 billion in immediate upgrades, said Roseman, who produced a report last month outlining “toxic” conditions in schools that he said have already had a ” real impact on health ”. Eighty percent of the district’s buildings are over 70 years old and schools contain hundreds of thousands of square and linear feet of asbestos-containing material, according to the report.
“Districts know they can’t fund what they need. So you have to start distorting the truth, because no one wants to compromise. [faith in]public education. As these issues get worse, you are less and less likely to be truthful and fully disclose reports, ”he said.
The union said the superintendent has stopped sharing information about mold, lead paint and other hazardous materials he previously shared. Monica Lewis, spokesperson for the Philadelphia superintendent, said the office had not received Roseman’s report, which is public.
Lewis said an environmental advisory group is already in place and last year’s issues “have already been resolved”. She did not respond directly to Roseman’s claim that the superintendent has stopped sharing information.
While there have been significant health risks associated with it for decades, the Covid-19 pandemic has shed new light on the scale of the problem. For example, last summer, GAO estimated that 36,000 schools nationwide were in need of heating and air conditioning repairs or upgrades for issues that, if left unresolved, could result in poor quality. air and mold.
Other dangers the GAO recently documented: 51 percent of the 100 largest school districts have found lead-based paint in schools, and less than half of school districts have tested for lead in drinking water.
No federal law requires testing for the presence of lead in drinking water in schools that draw their water from public systems. Additionally, most states do not conduct statewide assessments, leaving it to individual districts.
“There is a strange regulatory gap when it comes to lead in water,” said Anisa Heming, director of the Center for Green Schools, which advocates for greener, healthier school buildings. “A lot of schools are afraid to test because they don’t have the money to fix it.”