Alarming Conditions, Eye-Opening Lessons in School Building Tour

August 09, 2007

by Claris Olson, HSC Environmental Health Specialist

First in a three-part series

I recently had the chance to tour two schools at the extreme ends of the building-condition spectrum: an aging school in downtown Washington, D.C., and a LEED-certified “green” school in nearby Montgomery County Md. (The tours were part of an Indoor Environmental Quality training hosted by the American Federation of Teachers.)

The D.C. school,  built in the 1950s, is typical of many inner city schools in low-income minority communities.   

Outside the school, the windows looked as if they had not been cleaned since the school was built.  Soot, rust and bird droppings created a film over everything. 

Litter was scattered nearby and a dumpster was located so close to the entrance that we could smell rotting refuse as we entered.  Just as the students do each school day, we passed through a metal detector before being allowed to enter the building. 

Inside, the air was hot and stuffy –- the building seemed to have absolutely no ventilation.  A trip to the roof proved that the air conditioning system was indeed operating but was in such poor condition that there was no fresh air was going into the building.  Bird droppings and what appeared to be mold or algae covered the outside of the unit. 

The top floor of the school held a multi-purpose room of just about 1,000 square feet that also served as the library, resource center, computer lab and instructional area.  About half of the ceiling tiles showed water damage even though they had all been replaced a year ago.  And of course, where there is water damage, you will find mold. 

We entered one classroom that had been closed off to students because water was forming a pond in the center of the room. 

The mold in the room forced one of the training participants with asthma to leave the building. 

Water problems also plagued the basement, where the kitchen and cafeteria were located.  Evidence of mice and roaches was easily visible in the kitchen and cafeteria, as well as in the classrooms. 

The school had no elevator to accommodate children with disabilities.  We were told that students with  mobility impairments must be carried by a staff member up and down the stairs.  The administration office, while dry, was hot and stuffy and lacked proper ventilation. 

In spite of  the poor condition of the building, the staff dedication at the school was clear.  Staff made the best of what they had, and took pride in providing a place where children could learn and feel safe from violence outside the school.

The sad truth is that school conditions like these are not uncommon, especially in low-come minority communities. The tour was just one small reminder of how tremendously important it is for us to continue working to improve school environments for all children.

In next week’s blog, I’ll tell you about our tour of the school at the other end of the spectrum: the first LEED-certified school in Maryland.