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Francis Koster: Let’s all take a deep breath and help our kids

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chools are often the heart of communities.  My own memories of primary school included time spent playing dodgeball on the playground,  my excitement when I was asked to bring my favorite book to school and tell my classmates why I liked it, and too many times  having to carry a note home to my parents about some action I did or did not do.  (That never ended well.)

Like some members of our community, some school buildings are getting old. Like some of us, their plumbing does not work as well as it once did, and our friends and loved ones notice peeling paint, deteriorating roofs, and breathing issues (in the schools).

North Carolina’s schools rank 37th of all 50 states.  Our disappointing ranking is driven in part by old and loved school buildings which do not breathe well.

Old buildings without the ability to bring fresh air into the classroom reduce the ability of students to learn, and lowers their performance on standardized tests by one or two letter grades.   

The Environmental Protection Agency reports that about one-half of all  55 million K-12 students in America attend classes in rooms with poor indoor air quality.  When you look at the age of North Carolina’s 2,631 public school buildings, it is shocking to see that 167 are 75 years old or older, one-third are between 50 and 75 years old, around 500 are between 25 and 50 years old and only about one-third are under 25 years old. 

These old buildings impact student’s future eligibility for scholarships, admission to skilled trades, the military or college, and lifelong earning potential.

Charlotte Mecklenburg School System has identified 39 schools that have no ability to bring in fresh air – and of those school buildings, two-thirds are in low income neighborhoods with many other factors also holding students back from life success.  In Rowan County, Cabarrus County  and Kannapolis, there are 89 public schools. I could not get precise numbers, but somewhere around 30 – 45 do not have the ability to bring in fresh air.

These old buildings are not helping students climb out of poverty — they are trapping them in it.  To be clear — it is not the school system, the management, or the teachers.  It is the actual building itself.

Then then we pile Covid-19 on top of that. 

National surveys done in spring semester of 2020 predicted students would lose about a third of a school year in reading level, and two-thirds of a year in mathematics. Surveys done during fall of 2020 indicate the loss will be even greater, particularly among socially disadvantaged populations. 

There could be a silver lining to all of this.  The political debate about when and how to re-open schools safely has created a huge opportunity to fix these old schools.

Driven by COVID-19, six  states have mounted statewide efforts to upgrade all obsolete school air conditioning equipment to protect students from COVID-19 infection.  Independent of state level action, many other school systems around the country have taken action on their own.  (It is important to note that adding filters and sterilizing lights to protect students and teachers from COVID-19 does not fix the fresh air problem – bringing in fresh air is a separate step.)

North Carolina has no action planned to reduce COVID-19 risk by increasing the amount of fresh air in classrooms that I can find.

Washington has created and is in the process of expanding funding that can be used to fix our schools air conditioning.  As these federal funds begin to flow to the states for disbursal, it will be important to make sure that they are aimed where they can do the greatest good – older buildings occupied by low income students harmed by obsolete air conditioning.   They are the ones being hurt the most both by Covid-19, and old buildings.   

You can learn more about this issue by searching the web for  “The Pollution Detectives”.

You can help by contacting your child’s school and ask if they need help applying for some of that money to fix your school’s  fresh air issues. You can join with other parents to reach out to our elected members of our federal and state legislatures  and teach them what you just learned. Make sure you point out that if we as a society invest that money wisely, we can change forever the lives of large numbers of children.

Koster, who lives in Kannapolis, spent most of his career as chief innovation officer in one of the nation’s largest pediatric health care systems.

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