investiGATE: Crumbling RI Schools Affect Student Health

The year started dramatically for some Rhode Islanders. Students in Warwick and Cranston were sent home from school in January thanks to water damage and burst pipes from the cold snap. It’s an early sign of a growing crisis in our public schools; many of them are old and even more are falling apart. Governor Gina Raimondo, in her State of the State address last month, pledged $1 billion to fix our public schools over the next five years. This past September, she released a long-awaited study called the State of Rhode Island Schoolhouses. This report details the $2.2 billion public schools need, including everything from fixing roofs and ensuring they have clean water and heat  to more minor things like fixing and repainting signage. At least $600 million is needed in immediate repairs to our schools, to make them dry, warm and safe.

This has been a developing crisis everywhere, not just in Lil Rhody. Nationwide, some 50 million students and six million adults use public school buildings every day; that’s nearly one-fifth of the nation’s population. And if the school building is old or hasn’t had renovations to bring it up to safe standards, it can have a detrimental effect on public health and public education. One of the most common problems in public schools is ventilation and air quality. Schools with poor ventilation and that lack access to fresh, clean air will see an increase of 50% to 370% in the incidents of respiratory illness. This directly affects student learning, concentration and in national studies, causes rises in truancy and school suspension rates.

Our students are being treated like canaries in the coal mine. The most common and well-known respiratory illness in RI is asthma. According to data gathered by the RI Department of Health, one in every 10 Rhode Islanders has asthma. For adults, our rates are 33% higher than the national average. When you look at children, the rate is 40% higher than the national average. In a 2014 study on asthma claims in children, it found a direct correlation between asthma rates and student absenteeism. That’s when a student misses 10% or more of days in the school year. The study showed that during the time period it surveyed, 18,000 students had an asthma claim. Of that number, 37%, or around 6,700 students, were considered chronically absent during the school year.

It’s critical that students and school workers everywhere work in a healthy environment to avoid respiratory illnesses like asthma, which can add up to expensive healthcare costs over a lifetime. It’s a huge public health crisis considering just how many people, not just students, but their parents and loved ones, will enter one of these buildings.

Asthma rates are how Lisa Nelson got involved. She’s a public schools activist and the founder of Fix Our Schools Now, a coalition dedicated to ensuring a healthy environment for everyone who needs our public school buildings. Lisa works for a healthcare nonprofit, and one day RIDOH’s statistics on local asthma rates found its way into Lisa’s hands. It sparked her own investigation. “The coalition is meant to be a clearinghouse for all this information,” said Lisa during an interview in which she walked me through the public health crisis that is our school buildings. “Before, all the information was in separate departments. It’s our mission to bring it all together so we can work as a state toward a solution.”

Fix Our Schools Now has been active since 2016. Lisa has collected a staggering amount of sources, information, health experts and state leaders to tackle decaying local schools. In February of last year, Fix Our Schools Now hosted a mini conference of sorts that included health experts from Harvard, an architect familiar with the latest in school building standards and State Treasurer Seth Magaziner among many others. Just a few weeks ago, Fix Our Schools Now took a public tour of Rogers High School, which ranked in the top 10 of worst schools in that State of Rhode Island Schoolhouses survey.

Lisa compiled everything from the conference and the information she’s learned and has turned it into a two-hour presentation. She took it on the road to schools, towns, anywhere where anyone was curious or had someone who needed convincing. “How long have we been endangering the health of our students, teachers, janitors, lunch staff and others by neglecting these buildings?” said Lisa. “Going into places like these with bad ventilation or other hazardous materials is toxic for anyone’s health, even if you’re just visiting.”

Fix Our Schools Now isn’t as interested in assigning blame as it is finding solutions. This public health crisis in our schools has been bubbling for some time. Capital improvements and repairs for schools are frequently underfunded when compared to national standards. RI only spent 23% compared to the national standard on repairs and new school construction. But it’s often an uphill battle. Funding for new school construction requires the towns, many of them often cash-strapped as is, to pay for all new repairs and buildings upfront. The state will pay them back after construction is finished. In a small state like RI, the state government pays for 78% of new construction, compared to the national average of 18%.

But it’s not all bad news as 2018 chugs along. Governor Raimondo’s pledge and plan for money for new schools and repairs shows our leaders are starting to tackle the issue. It may take a village to raise a child, but it will take a Rhode Island to fix our schools now, and reverse these long-standing trends.

Concerned parents, teachers and others frequently send Fix Our Schools Now tips and pictures of school building conditions across the state. If you’d like to leave a tip, anonymously or otherwise, for Lisa and the rest of the coalition, you can call 401-236-4811.

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