October 14, 2020

The pandemic is spotlighting longstanding issues with America’s school buildings

Vladislav Nikonov on Unsplash

The GAO sounded a dire warning: One in three public school students — some 14 million — was learning in a building in need of extensive repair.

In New Orleans, that meant rotting buildings with no air conditioning. In rural California, it meant difficult-to-maintain portable classrooms. America’s school facilities, one observer said, were a “national crisis.”

That report was issued in 1995.

When the same office, an independent arm of the federal government, undertook another examination this June, the findings were familiar: in most of the country’s school districts, building systems — things like plumbing, roofing, and fire protection — were in need of major updates or total replacement. One-third of public schools were estimated to have inadequate heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems.

Now, schools are scrambling to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for improving ventilation, seen as crucial to minimizing the spread of COVID-19 indoors. Meanwhile, a spate of recent research has linked air conditioning, air filters, and other building improvements to gains in student learning.

That means the stakes of improving America’s school buildings are higher than ever. What’s still unclear is whether schools will be able to address ventilation concerns in the short term to help convince leery teachers and families it’s safe to return — and whether over the long term, they’ll get the resources to address building issues that make it harder for students to learn.

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