COVID-19 Risks Heightened by Rundown Facilities at Disadvantaged Schools

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

Across the United States, inadequate funding for the maintenance of school buildings puts students at increased risk to COVID-19, according to a September 2021 report for Truthout by Eleanor J. Bader. Bader’s report emphasizes how long-term deficits in funding for maintenance, combined with inadequate space, make older facilities especially dangerous during the pandemic. The ability of schools to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for “layered mitigation strategies” to prevent spread of the virus depend on adequate ventilation and space. However, many schools—including especially, those that serve disadvantaged student populations—lack functional heating and cooling systems or the space necessary for social distancing in classrooms and lunch rooms.

As Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association (NEA), told Truthout,  “The pandemic has caused America to see what educators have seen forever.” The lack of funding for school  infrastructure disproportionately impacts students of color.

“Students, especially if they’re Black, Brown or Indigenous, often attend schools with poor ventilation, leaky pipes or broken toilets,” Pringle stated. “Many go to schools built more than 50 years ago and are predisposed to getting sick from COVID because they have pre-existing conditions like asthma that are exacerbated by the conditions in their classrooms and schoolhouses.” In combination with poverty, housing instability, hunger, and limited technology access, Pringle refers to this as a “moral crisis.”

According to a June 2020 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, 54 percent of public-school districts “need to update or replace multiple building systems” and 41% percent “need to upgrade or replace HVAC systems.” A crisis in the structural integrity of some 100,000 public schools putting nearly 50 million kids and the more than 6 million adults who instruct, feed and clean up after them at risk, according to the GAO report.

Bader’s article describes how the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers seek passage of the Reopen and Rebuild America’s School Act, which would  allocate $100 billion in direct grants and $30 billion in bonds to support schools that need to upgrade HVAC systems and replace environmentally-damaging diesel school buses.

Infrastructure spending has been a contentious topic in corporate media as recently as November 2021. However, the coverage has focused on the political tensions erupting from the bill’s budget and divisions around its legislative passage rather than the effects on safer schooling conditions. In November 2021, Forbes attributed delays in the bill’s passage and the decreased scope of the bill’s infrastructural coverage to “infighting among Senate Democrats.” Also in November 2021, the New York Times analyzed the financial implications of the bill’s passage, focusing on the projected addition of $256 billion USD to the national deficit and congressional conflicts over alternate funding sources for the bill. Neither article discussed the impacts of such funding on students and teachers attending schools targeted for improvement, the urgency with which the bills must pass in order to alleviate current infrastructural issues, or the importance of such funding being allocated to K-12 educational building infrastructure, especially in relation to COVID-19 health concerns.

Source: Eleanor J. Bader, “Dilapidated Buildings Increase Risk of COVID Transmission as School Year Begins,” Truthout, September 14, 2021.

Student Researchers: William Khoury, Haley LaKind, Kira Levenson, and Molly O’Regan (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Faculty Evaluator: Allison Butler (University of Massachusetts Amherst)