Recommendation to the Next Administration: Healthy and Green Schools

November 01, 2016

The next President of the United States has the opportunity to play a powerful role in creating the conditions of student health in our nation’s schools and giving all children a chance for a healthy, brighter tomorrow. Healthy Schools Campaign has released our recommendations for the next administration on supporting school health. Today, we are featuring the third of these recommendations. We invite you to read HSC’s full set of recommendations and stay tuned for more on the blog in the weeks ahead.

Healthy Schools Campaign calls on the next administration to that ensure all staff and students have access to school facilities that support health while helping preserve the environment.

Research shows that the physical environments in which children spend their time have a profound impact on their health and ability to learn. Because school attendance is mandated by law, our government has a responsibility to provide healthy school environments. Yet large-scale research continues to show this responsibility is not always met. The U.S. Government Accountability Office notes, “While laws compel children to attend school, some school buildings may be unsafe or even harmful to children’s health.” Research also shows that schools serving low-income communities of color have higher rates of environmental health hazards as compared to the national average. You can read more about the scale of this issue and related research in HSC’s Environmental Policy section.

Given this challenge, we must take action to address a number of critical environmental health and school facility issues, including:

  • Indoor Air Quality (IAQ): Irritants and allergens such as pests, pesticides, mold, asbestos and cleaning products can have a negative impact on IAQ, with serious effects on health and learning. Poor IAQ is closely connected to attendance and absenteeism; the American Lung Association found that children miss more than 14 million school days each year because of asthma, which is exacerbated by poor IAQ.
  • Safe drinking water: The recent crisis in Flint, Mich., regarding lead in water highlights the devastating consequences for children’s health and learning when safe drinking water is not prioritized. School systems throughout the country have long grappled with lead in water, due in part to aging buildings laden with lead-bearing pipes and fixtures. Even now, the vast majority of the nation’s schools are not legally required by states or the federal government to test their water on a regular basis. While EPA provides guidance for schools on testing drinking water, only 56 percent of U.S. school districts require drinking water inspections for lead and only 22 percent of school districts have model drinking water quality policies.
  • Schoolyards: Many schoolyards, particularly in large urban areas, are uninviting, unsafe and do not provide the school or community with usable space to play or be outside. An emerging green schoolyard movement—including the Space to Grow program that HSC co-manages—is demonstrating value to schools and their communities for transforming schoolyards into places that support outdoor learning and active play and become positive centers for the community.

Federal resources exist to help address these challenges. For example, the EPA has comprehensive guidance and tools for states, school districts and schools—including its Tools for Schools program—to ensure students have access to a healthy environment. The Department of Education and Department of Energy also have resources for schools.

Ensuring school staff and students have access to school facilities that support health and achievement is a key strategy for promoting health and student achievement. In summary, HSC recommends that the next administration:

  • Include school construction and maintenance in any infrastructure investment of the federal government or establish and fund the Healthy and High Performing School Fund. Target these funds to low-income communities to address inequities in the quality of school facilities in those communities and require new schools constructed with these funds to comply with EPA’s school siting guidelines.
  • Fully fund current federal programs within EPA, Department of Education and Department of Energy that build capacity to support healthy school environments.
  • Develop standards for protecting student health and require schools to meet them. While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) set regulations and establish guidance for workplace safety for adults, no such regulations and guidance have been developed to protect children in schools.

We invite you to read HSC’s full analysis and recommendations for the next administration.