Summer is nearing its end. For millions of children across America, that means it’s time to start thinking about school. When you think of school, what do you remember? Maybe you remember your friends, your favorite teachers, or favorite subjects. Or do you think of mold growing on your desk, excessive heat closing down your school, and poor ventilation incubating the spread of viruses like Covid-19? The latter is reality for hundreds of children in Connecticut.
In August of 2021, teachers at Fair Haven School in New Haven prepared for the school year by scraping mold off the furniture in their classrooms. They did this to combat problems caused by broken heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.
The mold in New Haven classrooms is just one part of a much larger issue facing Connecticut schools. The Connecticut Department of Administrative Services’ Summary Report of School Facilities survey found that 53% of schools use HVAC systems and boilers that have already exceeded the predicted life of the equipment. Improper HVAC systems increase the prevalence of hazardous substances like mold and viruses in the air.
Every child has the right to accessible, quality education. Part of that is having a safe place to learn. Poor indoor air quality violates that right by creating an unsafe school environment.
In both of the last sessions in the state legislature, legislators proposed An Act Improving Indoor Air Quality in Public School Classrooms, a bill that would set school temperature and humidity limits while also providing funding for the installation and maintenance of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. Unfortunately, this bill has failed both times.
Former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Katarina Tomaševski, created a four-pronged guide to understanding the right to education in practice. Two of these, availability and acceptability, point directly to school infrastructure and safety as important features to making the right to education meaningful. Education must be available, meaning adequate infrastructure and teachers are available to support the delivery of education. Likewise, education must be acceptable – schools must be a safe space for all children.
Thus, when a lack of proper HVAC systems creates an environment that causes teachers to miss school, children to face respiratory illness, and schools to close because of extreme heat, it is clear that children are not having their right to education fully respected.
In 2019, the moldy conditions at Westhill High School, a school in Stamford, were so detrimental that educator Ruth-Terry Walden was ordered to stay home by her doctor until she could recover from damaged health. Although Walden noted that the problem improved in the fall, she said it was “far from completely fixed.”
Not only are teachers’ health put at risk, but teachers are forced to devote extra work to ensure that their students can do something as basic as breathing safely. The mold incident in New Haven was a result of a combination of humid air and an HVAC system that had “[aged] to the point where they are difficult to service” led to the mold infestation.
Fair Haven is not the only school that hasn’t repaired its deteriorating systems. In Connecticut, 31% of school districts do not have reasonable funding to repair and replace such equipment. Further, 39% of districts have not approved sufficient funding to carry out an IAQ program at each annual board budget and town appropriation.
The National Weather Service identifies a heat index of 90 °F or above as a significant health risk. When subject to such temperatures, children are especially susceptible to dehydration and heat-related illness. Don Williams, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, says that temperatures in school buildings currently surpass 90 °F, sometimes going above 100 °F. Such high temperatures have led multiple Connecticut school districts to close and dismiss students early. After having multiple HVAC failures, Guilford Public Schools decided to close, unable to manage the high heat.
There are regulations regarding indoor air temperature in Connecticut – for dog kennels, not schools. Commercial kennels are required to “minimize odor, ammonia levels, disease transmission risk, and unnecessary stress” and provide HVAC systems capable of maintaining temperatures between 55 °F to 80 °F. Why are children allowed to endure conditions unacceptable for animals?
Reintroducing and passing the Act Improving Indoor Air Quality in Public School Classrooms in the next legislative session would be a crucial step in protecting the availability and accessibility of education in Connecticut and, in turn, the health and human rights of Connecticut schoolchildren.
Further, continued maintenance of HVAC systems is actually the more cost effective option compared to simply letting equipment break. Without proper attention to maintain HVAC systems, buildings could reach the point of requiring demolition. When students miss class and teachers have to call out of work, more time and effort has to be put into hiring substitutes and catching students up. Increasing these ventilation rates does increase energy and capital costs, but the net annual cost ends up being less than 0.1% of usual spending on public primary and secondary education in the country – a small price to pay for the health and education of Connecticut’s students.
Some may argue that funding problems mean that only poor districts are failing to provide safe environments for their students, but it is crucial to realize that indoor air quality issues affect districts from all economic backgrounds. Comparing Connecticut mill rates with data from School Facilities Survey responses, little to no relationship is found between the tax rates of each district and whether an indoor air quality program is sufficiently funded. This can be seen in Hartford, where the mill rate is highest but its schools do not have sufficient funding approved to carry out an indoor air quality program.
Parents should be able to trust that the air their children breathe every day in schools will not put them at risk. Teachers should not be forced to scrape preventable mold off of furniture. This is a problem that can and should be fixed. It is time to make the protection of classroom air a law to ensure that the right to education of Connecticut youth is fully respected.
Maya Feron, Christine Lee, Brooke Mahany and Shelby Parker are high school seniors at Wellington High School, Phillips Academy, Onslow Early College, and Dalton McMichael High School, respectively. All four are participating in the Young Scholars Senior Summit program at the University of Connecticut.