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NEA News

Educators speak out: In decaying buildings, we cannot keep students safe

Over half of school buildings in America are older than 50 years old, leading to unsafe conditions for students and school staff.
Falling classroom ceiling
Published: 10/08/2021

Every student deserves a safe environment to develop their love for learning. Throughout the pandemic, school buildings across the country have turned into spaces where students and families can access WiFi, regular meals, and more, in addition to academic success. The buildings that serve our school communities are deserving of the same care and investment.

However, over 50% of school buildings in America are older than 50 years old, leading to unsafe conditions, not just related to air quality or cleanliness important to keeping our students and school staff healthy, but also the physical infrastructure. 

Funding to modernize our nation’s school facilities is a critical component of the “Build Back Better” plan, President Joe Biden’s ambitious domestic agenda to support working families and create a more liveable future for our children. By focusing on education, child care, climate change, and more, the plan promises to have a transformative impact on students, educators, and public schools all across the country. 

The House’s version of Build Back Better would, in part, provide $82 billion in federal grant funding towards repairing and upgrading crumbling schools. Senate Democrats are planning to advance their version of the package through the budget reconciliation process, which only requires a simple majority to pass the upper chamber. 

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As congressional Democrats and the White House continue to negotiate over the final size of the package—now estimated to be between $1.9 trillion to $2.3 trillion—it’s critical that they continue to prioritize funding that addresses the hazardous conditions found all too often in public school facilities. As educators all across the country can attest, unsafe school conditions present a very real health threat to students and school faculty alike. 

In Vancouver, WA, a teacher says that his air filter for his classroom regularly shows that the air quality is unsafe.

“I am in a science room and multiple sinks have caution signs as there has been lead found in the water. There is also asbestos in our science rooms. I fear for the air quality and for my exposure to mold through the air ducts,” said Dale Makineni, a teacher at Pacific Middle School. He continued, “There are no quick fixes that could improve these and more conditions. We are not keeping our teachers and students safe.”

Similar situations can be seen throughout America’s public school buildings, where 90% of children attend school. Educators have been at the forefront of the conversation, calling for investment in school modernization before their legislators on the local and national levels. Some public school facilities are so poorly equipped or in such poor condition—too hot, too cold, or infested with vermin—they undermine student learning.

In St. Paul, MN, the inability to regulate temperatures has caused the building to more rapidly deteriorate. 

“Our carpet is dirty, torn, and does not stay down. Ants make hills in some classrooms,” said Jamie Peterson at Bruce Vento Elementary. Peterson continued, “On cold days we have rooms where kids have to wear coats because it is so cold. We have multiple classrooms where the roof leaks when it rains.”

Other schools face issues of social distancing for both students and educators. In Amherst, MA, classrooms are moving into the art and music rooms, and the cafeterias and students are left eating lunch at their desks.

“I have had baby birds and bats fall out of the ceiling, mice, mold. This is no longer a place I want to work as the conditions have deteriorated so much over the years,” said Liz Elder at Wildwood School. She continued, ”My working conditions are kids’ working conditions! Who wants to move here and have their kids attend school in this building? We all need a safe, clean, space to work and learn. Environment matters. Why are our students relegated to the worst buildings with old materials?”

The Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act (S. 96/H.R. 604) would create a $100 billion grant program and $30 billion tax-credit bond program targeting high-poverty school buildings that pose health and safety risks to students and staff. Almost 60,000 educators have already contacted their members of Congress in support of the bill’s inclusion in the final Build Back Better package. As negotiations over the plan’s size continue, lawmakers are still debating whether or not to include this essential funding for public schools in the final spending package. But this investment would be vital for modernizing schools like Kearney Middle School in Colorado.

“We would breathe healthier air, which gives us brain energy. Clean spaces make us feel safe and valued. If I am valued and safe I can learn,” says Deborah Figueroa of Commerce City, CO, where she says her school building needs new ventilation, new walls, mold removal, new updated window, and more.

Take a look at photos from other schools where we can make a change to better the learning conditions of our students:

  • “We need a new roof, new HVAC, new plumbing throughout, new student bathrooms, ADA accommodations throughout our building. We have three floors with narrow staircases and no elevators. Our old water fountains have lead in the water and asbestos-wrapped pipes. We also need a functioning science lab.” – Sarah A., Norridge, IL
  • “The building should be dry, fire safe, safe from intruders, and comfortable. There would not be a need to place plastic sheeting and cardboard boxes above the drop ceiling to hide leaks.” – John P., Wood River Junction, RI
  • “Student desks wobble and sometimes collapse as the old bolts wiggle out. I keep a toolbox in my classroom for on-the-go repairs. Teacher desks and chairs are also used and in poor condition. Giving this community a safe and comfortable learning environment for their children would be priceless. Academic achievement would increase as comfortable and safe students are better learners.” – Jennifer V., Columbus, OH
  • “Well fitted screens would mean less dirt and dust, fewer mosquitos attacking students. New flooring would mean a cleaner surface to play on and easier to clean daily, new paint would mean less paint chips falling onto the floor, mold clean up would mean less allergic reactions to being in a room full of moisture and mold/mildew. A healthier classroom makes for healthier kids who are at school more often and are less distracted from their learning.” – Abby A., Kailua-Kona, HI
  • “The current recreation facilities present safety hazards with uneven playing fields, limited safety netting, and crumbling walkways. There are constant water intrusion concerns and failing foundations. There are significant Title 9 concerns regarding the facilities and access for our female teams vs. those facilities provided for the boys (unequal locker room facilities, etc.).” – Kimberly K., Stamford, CT
National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.