Schools Plan to Reopen as Federal Watchdog Finds Major Facility Problems

By:  Lauren Camera

WHEN THE PHILADELPHIA Federation of Teachers sent its 13,000 members a survey about their biggest concerns for reopening schools, it was inundated with a recurring theme: If school facilities aren't in better condition, I'm not coming back.

"To use the sinks in the bathroom, one must hold the faucet on with one hand, making it impossible to thoroughly wash hands," one teacher replied, with others commenting that some faucets didn't work at all and that bathrooms almost always lacked soap.

"The air quality is a concern," another wrote. "The windows barely open to allow for appropriate ventilation."

One wrote simply that Philadelphia schools "cannot deal with facilities without a pandemic."

Philadelphia is hardly alone. More than half of the country's 13,000 school districts need to update or replace multiple building systems in their schools, according to a new Government Accountability Office report published Thursday. 

Those facilities issues include, among other things, more than 40% of school districts that need to update or replace heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in at least half of their schools – an estimated 36,000 schools nationwide – that if left unaddressed could lead to indoor air quality problems and mold. In some cases these problems have already caused schools to adjust their calendar year or shutter entirely.

Parts of the HVAC system at one school GAO investigators visited in Rhode Island, for example, were nearly 100 years old. Another school in Michigan used an original boiler from the 1920s to heat the building. And officials in one Michigan school district told GAO investigators that about 60% of their schools do not have air conditioning. 

The nationwide survey from the GAO, federal government's independent watchdog – the first evaluation of the country's K-12 schools the agency has conducted in more than two decades – comes as President Donald Trump continues to pressure governors to reopen schools in order to breathe life back into the economy, and puts another major task on school administrators' to-do list as they make preparations to reopen against the backdrop of a global pandemic that's killed more than 100,000 people in the U.S.: Address outstanding facilities issues seen by some as key to reopening schools in the wake of the coronavirus.

"I know we can't stay home forever," one Philadelphia teacher wrote, "but our schools are woefully underprepared – in many respects, through no fault of their own – to deal with the challenges ahead, and sacrificing actual human lives because people are getting antsy at home is something I won't personally be a part of." 

There is no national database or record keeping of infrastructure issues in schools, and therefore no way to provide any type of precise estimate as to how many schools lack basic facilities like hot water and working ventilation systems. In fact, according to the GAO report, more than one-third of school districts had not or didn't know whether they had assessed the conditions of their facilities in the last 10 years. School officials in districts that had not conducted a facilities check in the last 10 years told GAO investigators that they hadn't done so because of lack of available funding and instead assessed school conditions through other mechanisms, such as "informal walkthroughs."

And despite K-12 schools being the second biggest total infrastructure expense behind highways, the last time the federal government tried to assess the state of school facilities was in 2014, when the National Center for Education Statistics found that roughly one-third of all public schools rated their bathrooms, plumbing, ventilation and filtration systems and as in fair or poor condition.

"The concerns about water and air are ones that we hear a lot about whether or not people are dealing with a pandemic," Anisa Heming, director of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council, says. 

"I know a lot of people are concerned about running water for hand washing," Heming says. "The thing we're hearing a lot about related to the pandemic is the number of faucets available. If you need all students to wash their hands frequently and at certain times, if there are only four sinks on a floor then that's a logistical nightmare."

"School buildings are not really built for what public health guidance is saying we should all be doing to keep ourselves healthy," she says.

School administrators and advocates for increased federal investment in school facilities hope the GAO report will provide a push to members of Congress and Trump administration officials to more seriously consider long standing pleas for federal support.

"Even prior to COVID, this is something that's been a huge issue of advocacy for me," Janice Jackson, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, says. 

Chicago Public Schools has $3.4 billion in deferred maintenance needs, more than half of which is characterized by city officials as a "critical need."

"We need to ensure our buildings are structured to keep children safe, warm and dry," Jackson says. "Particularly in large cities like Chicago, and in cities where the need is great and the over reliance on local property taxes is just not sufficient, we need additional revenue streams so we can continue to update our portfolio of schools."

Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions doesn't recommend any specific facilities upgrades, and instead focuses on human activity to slow the spread of the virus – things like handwashing, using hand sanitizer and maintaining the recommended social distancing of 6 feet. But Jackson says in light of the pandemic, she and other city school officials are revisiting certain capital projects. 

Part of the problem, Jackson says, is that the average age of school buildings in Chicago is 80 years old – double the national average of schools buildings.

"While we have beautiful buildings that have been maintained well, we still need additional and frequent and regular investment in those schools in order to preserve them," Jackson says. "We need to make sure that when children walk into schools they feel respected and they feel like they have a fighting chance. So many school buildings in our country make them feel like they don't have that chance."

School facility woes are not only confined to urban school districts. In fact, the 2014 NCES school facilities analysis showed that the number of public schools that rated their bathrooms, plumbing, ventilation and filtration systems and as in fair or poor condition jumped not just among city schools, but also among schools with lots of poor students, schools with enrollments of less than 300 students, schools located in towns and schools with low minority enrollment.

"This is a national problem," says Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund and coordinator of the National Council on School Facilities. "It's equal opportunity miserable."

Filardo, who's been spearheading weekly webinars with state directors and district officials about the operational aspects of reopening schools, says there's more at stake now than ever.

"Part of why COVID-19 is highlighting these issues is because there is a standard from which people are looking at schools," Filardo says. "We haven't been meeting these standards in regular times. How are we going to be meeting them now?"

Filardo, Jackson and others hope the GAO report provides some leverage for federal infrastructure support in a new round of coronavirus relief as well as the Rebuild America's Schools Act, legislation introduced last year by Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, and Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, which would pump $100 billion into schools through a federal-state match to address physical and digital infrastructure needs.

"Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, outdated and hazardous school buildings were undermining the quality of public education and putting students and educators at risk," Scott said in a statement. "Now, the pandemic is exacerbating the consequences of our failure to make necessary investments in school infrastructure. This report offers clear, irrefutable evidence that we must launch an urgent, nationwide effort to rebuild America's schools."