With recent surges in flu, RSV, and COVID-19, and winter weather keeping more of us indoors, ensuring proper heating, cooling, and ventilation systems in our public schools is critical to protecting the health of Connecticut’s students, teachers, and communities.
Unfortunately, hundreds of school buildings across the state are in dire need of improvement, with indoor air quality problems ranging from extreme temperatures and unsafe humidity levels to mold and other respiratory hazards that affect not only student performance but also the health of students, educators, and others who occupy those buildings.
A new survey released by the Connecticut Education Association finds that voters overwhelmingly support efforts to improve schools and protect children and educators from the poor air they breathe every day in hundreds of classrooms across the state.
According to the survey, almost all voters (91%) support establishing temperature and humidity standards to eliminate poor air quality that results in mold and contributes to respiratory health problems for students and staff. Fifty-seven percent strongly support this proposal.
“This isn’t a new problem,” says CEA President Kate Dias. “Too many Connecticut classrooms have heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems that are aging, in disrepair, or in urgent need of replacement. The need for new and updated HVAC systems is about ensuring we have safe, healthy school communities where teachers can teach and students can learn.”
The survey also found that 88% of voters support requiring districts to show they are meeting school indoor air quality standards. More than half, 54%, strongly support this proposal.
“Right now, districts don’t have to report maintenance of their HVAC systems, and schools don’t have to have minimum or maximum temperature standards for students. Classrooms are poorly ventilated and cold in the winter, with students having to wear coats and gloves indoors. In the warmer months they are sweltering, leaving students unable to concentrate on learning due to high heat and humidity levels,” says Dias.
By way of comparison, laws prohibit temperatures in pet stores from going below 65 degrees or above 78 degrees.
“The absence of standards in statute means we are allowing kids to sit in 95-degree classrooms, we are allowing windows to be kept open in winter, we are allowing our students and our teachers to get sick and to work in very inhospitable conditions,” Dias explains. “Improving the air in our schools says we as a state care. It says protecting the health and safety of everyone in our public schools is of paramount importance. It says we’re invested. It says our public schools are great places to grow and to work.”
When it comes to funding, 89% of voters support identifying funding sources, such as school construction grants, to assist cities and towns with installations or repairs to heating and cooling systems.
“Too often, when budget cuts hit school districts, the first thing to go is maintenance, and that’s one of the main reasons so many of our school HVAC systems are in poor condition,” Dias says.
Unhealthy classroom environments can have a significant impact on students’ learning and the health and well-being of everyone in a school. Unhealthy air in school buildings contributes to higher rates of chronic illness among students and teachers, increased absenteeism, and an overall decline in student achievement. Over the past several years, CEA has seen an uptick in workers’ compensation claims related to poor indoor air quality in schools across the state.
For four years, educators have been urging lawmakers to establish school temperature limits, require HVAC and air quality monitoring standards, and institute other measures to ensure school buildings remain free from toxins and other hazards that can harm children and educators.
Teachers and students have shared often heartbreaking stories with lawmakers about how extreme temperatures and poor air quality negatively impact them and those around them.
“I have been working in an environment with serious mold problems, water intrusion, poor air quality, and HVAC and ventilation systems that were not properly cleaned and maintained.”
“As a result of working in an unsafe environment, my health has suffered, and I am concerned for the health of every student and employee who has been exposed to these conditions.”
“I have been out of work since 2018 due to exposure to and subsequent illness from black mold and other adverse environmental factors in my classroom.”
“My classroom was 100 degrees. I became dizzy and felt like I was being poisoned.”
“In the very warm days of May and June as well as late August into October my classroom becomes unbearable.”
“We have come into class to a 40-degree room and a 110-degree room. On those days, we must relocate. The room is not safe.”
“I have kids with asthma, coughs, congestion, allergies, and other health impairments. The fact that we are sweltering all day without AC increases these issues.”
“My allergies start the moment I walk into the building and end the moment I walk out.”
“Sometimes I go to school and come home with a migraine. Some of my classrooms are really hot, and others are really cold.”
“Whether classrooms are too cold or excessively hot, it all impacts students’ health and learning.”
“As teaching professionals, we are committed to student health and academic achievement, and we know that poor indoor air quality and ventilation negatively impact learning and lead to illness. As Connecticut faces a huge teaching shortage, this is a piece of the puzzle that can help turn things around and maintain our competitiveness,” says Dias. “We know that providing healthy, vibrant working conditions will go a long way toward bringing more people into the profession and show that Connecticut cares about its educators and is a top-tier education system where people want to work. It is impossible to make teachers and students feel valued when the facilities we provide for them are run-down or poorly maintained.”
The survey clearly shows that Connecticut voters support changes to improve indoor air quality in our schools.
“This legislative session provides a fresh opportunity for us to take our case to our elected officials and ensure that they pass meaningful laws that establish air quality standards that are conducive to good health and good learning,” stresses Dias.
The survey of 800 registered Connecticut voters was conducted in December 2022 by GBAO in Washington, D.C.