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Policy and Advocacy

School Buildings Were in Trouble Even Before COVID-19

Many of America’s public schools are in need of major repairs, especially in low-income communities.

By Holly Lebowitz Rossi

September 24, 2020

A Rundown School Building

As schools continue to navigate questions around how, whether, and when to return to classrooms safely, the 2020-2021 school year seems to rest on the school buildings themselves. Air quality and filtration, hygiene accessibility, and space to accommodate social distancing top the list of requirements. 

But when it comes to the maintenance, improvement, or even basic upkeep of America’s public school buildings, many, especially those in low-income communities, start from a place of deep need.

Even before COVID-19 necessitated a new, widespread sense of urgency, school facilities in the U.S. were in trouble, with public investment in schools falling while enrollment climbed. The coronavirus pandemic changed everything—but the challenge of providing safe public school buildings has not changed so much as compounded. Leaky roofs, rusty plumbing, mold and mildew, and broken heating and cooling systems all plagued school buildings long before the pandemic hit. 

Half of America’s public schools need major facilities upgrades, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. And getting the necessary investment of finances and public will is a tall order, particularly in low-income urban, rural, and tribal reservation communities where resources are stretched and scarce.

The story of failing school buildings too often gets told when things get headline-grabbingly serious, like when students and teachers in Philadelphia were sickened by asbestos and lead contamination in the plumbing system, leading two schools to close for nearly a month in late 2019. 

But before facilities situations become crises, schools across America can be found limping under the radar for years with challenges and infrastructure failings that, before the pandemic put school buildings into sharp national focus, routinely tumbled down the priority list amid limited spending resources.

“Having facilities that are so run down sends a message to kids that we don’t value their education, we don’t value them”

Janelle Dempsey

Attorney, Lawyers for Civil Rights

“Having facilities that are so run down sends a message to kids that we don’t value their education, we don’t value them,” said Janelle Dempsey, an attorney with Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston. Dempsey has accompanied families into meetings held in schools and has been struck by the difference in atmosphere caused by various levels of facilities quality, which often align with the socioeconomic status of a neighborhood or district.

“I remember going into a suburban school, and there were bright colors and shiny floors and fresh paint and new doors,” she said. “It was a very different atmosphere than any of the other schools I had been in, which were in poorer communities, with mostly people of color.” 

In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the U.S. public school system a D+ on its “Infrastructure Report Card,” issued every five years. Fifty-three percent of schools, the report found, need improvements just to rise to a ranking of “good” condition. Twenty-four percent were rated “fair” or “poor.” Thirty-one percent had temporary buildings—which spikes the “fair” or “poor” rate to 45 percent. And 40 percent of schools lack a long-term educational facilities plan to address these challenges.

The same year the ASCE report came out, the National Indian Education Association (NIEA) called attention to a U.S. Department of the Interior report that found 96 out of 183 schools managed by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) were in “poor” condition, with collapsing roofs and non-functioning HVAC systems, among other problems. Since then, gradual progress has been made, such as BIE School Replacement requirements no longer specifying that school buildings must be at least 50 years old with at least 75 percent of students in portable facilities to qualify for upgrades, criteria the NIEA calls “unacceptable.” 

The progress is notably slow, however; as of July 2019, 11 of 14 schools that were on a 2004 priority list were even “in sight” of replacement. And that was before the coronavirus infected Native Americans at as much as three times the rate of white people, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Air, Noise, and Temperature Problems

“We know that facilities are in tough shape generally, and no reasonable observer should dispute that fact,” said Jack Buckley, an education researcher who has been in the field since the 1990s. 

Beyond general infrastructure problems like faulty plumbing, insects and rodents, and leaky roofs, are three major indicators of school facilities quality—indoor air quality, ambient noise, and temperature—that the research suggests have the most significant impact on the health, learning, and well-being of students, staff, and teachers. 

Indoor Air Quality

Indoor air quality is at the epicenter of the conversation about how schools can open safely during a pandemic that is known to be spread through respiratory droplets in the air. The CDC’s guidance for school opening includes details on air circulation, ventilation, and filtration.

But the needed upgrades—including upgraded cleaning procedures, air filters, high-tech systems like UV irradiation, and even basic tools to assess whether surface and air cleaning measures are working—are costly, and many schools have struggled to maintain healthy indoor air quality for years, if not decades, without the new burdens.

Sara Lynch was a 2011 TFA corps member in east Nashville. In her high school Spanish classroom, it wasn’t unusual for residue from the ceiling to drip onto her head while she was teaching. 

“The humidity was seeping into the classrooms, and there was black mold throughout the school building,” she recalls. Students reported frequent headaches and often would be overtired to the point where they would need to put their heads down on their desks during class. Students with asthma had an uptick in their symptoms and in missed days of school. 

Lynch’s experience is an example of what researchers call “sick building syndrome,” when contaminants from pollution to moisture sabotage the air quality throughout a building, to the detriment of those who spend time within its walls. 

Indoor air quality is impacted by “sources, pathways, and people,” explains Richard Shaughnessy, program director of indoor air research at the University of Tulsa. And it has been a known problem in aging school buildings since long before the coronavirus shined a spotlight on the necessity of proper air filtration and ventilation.

“Sick” buildings impact every aspect of the educational experience. 

A large, multi-level study Shaughnessy co-authored in 2015 with his wife, Ulla Haverinen-Shaughnessy, who is a senior research associate in the University of Tulsa’s indoor air program, is one of many that connects classroom ventilation with academic performance. The study examined 70 elementary schools in the Southwestern U.S., where hot summers and mild winters are typical. 

For the study, fresh air was introduced into the buildings by the HVAC system only (windows were kept closed) so the ventilation could be controlled for the study. And for every liter per second per person of properly ventilated air, mathematics test scores increased up to eleven points. 

Social and emotional well-being is also associated with indoor air quality. Haverinen-Shaughnessy published another study in 2018 that was based on data collected separately from students about the social climate in their school, and from principals on observed air quality issues. 

“We found that the teacher-student relationship was reported to be worse in schools with observed indoor air problems compared to those without observed indoor air problems,” wrote Haverinen-Shaughnessy in the study. 

There are a number of low- or no-cost practices that can improve indoor air quality in school buildings, like keeping dust-attracting clutter to a minimum and keeping ducts and other sources of ventilation clear of furniture and equipment. 

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Indoor Air Quality agency has worked since the mid-1990s to build public education around these best practices. The agency holds regular webinars on topics including “green” cleaning, moisture and mold management, energy efficiency, and mitigating asthma triggers. A mobile app offers a checklist school leaders can take on walk-throughs of their buildings to assess pest control, ventilation, environmental triggers, and more. And the EPA has issued specific guidance for schools to create and maintain healthy environments during the pandemic. 

But the EPA’s guidelines for school buildings are voluntary, which has left schools in an air quality deficit, according to Shaughnessy. For decades, if schools had to make hard choices about even minimal investments in improving conditions, air quality often took a back seat to other, more urgent-seeming issues. 

“If we’d been more proactive coming to this point, we’d be in a much better position,” Shaughnessy said. “The entire system has let it come to this point—it’s almost an unmanageable situation at this point in time because of that.”

Ambient Noise

If only “just open the windows” were a plausible solution to the indoor air quality problem. But even if windows could be opened in school buildings (many can’t, for reasons ranging from security to rust or other negligence), this approach allows ambient noise into the building along with fresh air.

Environmental psychologist Arline Bronzaft says “quieting the system” should be a priority, as it is known to impact learning, attention, and physical health as much as any other facilities challenge. Bronzaft’s research connects aircraft noise with poor sleep and heightened cardiovascular illness risk, among other challenges. In 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration instituted an Airport Noise Program that provides federal funds to help eligible schools impacted by aircraft noise install sound insulation to mitigate the disturbances the noise causes.

In urban areas, ambient noise is an unchangeable reality that can impact schools significantly.

In a groundbreaking and oft-cited 1975 research study at a Manhattan elementary school, Bronzaft found that an elevated train that passed one side of the building every 4.5 minutes cost teachers a staggering 11 percent of instruction time each day. 

Following her study, the New York Transit Authority installed rubber resilient pads on tracks that ran adjacent to 54 schools in the city, and the New York City school board installed acoustical ceiling tiles in buildings throughout the city. At the original study school, reading scores skyrocketed. The outcome propelled Bronzaft into a decades-long career researching and advocating for double-glazed windows, air conditioning systems, better room layout, and other ways to lower ambient noise that can disrupt learning and well-being.

Schools that avoid investing in noise-managing improvements for financial reasons are missing the problem’s true cost, Bronzaft said: “When students are a year behind in reading, how much does it cost to remediate those children? Children not learning because of noise costs money.”

Recently, parents from another train track-adjacent school reached out to Bronzaft for her help in making the case for noise abatement. She’s eager to get involved—but disappointed that after 45 years, it’s still such a significant undertaking to convince school systems to take the needed steps. “It isn’t that we don’t know what to do, we just don’t have the will to do it. And that hurts,” she said.

Temperature

It stands to reason that the temperature of the air inside school buildings matters to students, staff, and teachers as much as its quality. Too hot, and everyone gets sluggish. Too cold, and it’s hard to hold a pencil, much less concentrate. This presents another complication to the idea of opening windows in school buildings—but like other facilities challenges, it was an issue long before COVID-19.

Air temperature in schools has been studied by Shaughnessy and others, often in conjunction with indoor air quality research. Again, the findings are consistent—poor temperature regulation is associated with lower academic performance in areas ranging from test scores to memory and retention abilities to the ability to think logically.

In early 2018, Baltimore, Maryland, made headlines when four public schools were temporarily closed during a major cold snap. Heating systems were inadequate in at least 60 schools in the district, according to complaints filed at the time. Baltimore’s public schools buildings are among the oldest in the nation. 

They are also a prime example of the disproportionate impact school infrastructure problems have on low-income communities and communities of color. 

In a 2018 op-ed published on CNN, Janie Tankard Carnock, a 2012 TFA alum who had taught in a Baltimore elementary school, said she often arrived at school when her weather app registered a mere 7 degrees, only to find her classroom heater broken.

“Classrooms of freezing children of color is the epitome of systemic racism, laid bare,” she wrote, recalling her students sitting cross-legged on the rug ready to learn—in their mittens, coats, and hats.

Why Low-Income Communities Struggle More

The financial aspect of school facilities construction and maintenance is highly complex. Absent a federal source of funds, or even mandatory federal standards for issues like indoor air quality, it falls to each state to set its own plans and protocols for school buildings—and to fund their own projects. 

Education advocates call for a federal investment that matches the urgency of the problem. The 21st Century School Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, is calling on Congress to include a $130 billion school facilities funding component called the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act in the broad COVID relief legislation known as the Moving Forward Act (H.R. 2), legislation Teach for America also supports. TFA is also joining the National Indian Education Association and the National Congress of American Indians in requesting $430 million for school reconstruction and renovation of schools managed by the Bureau of Indian Education. 

But experts say the total dollar amount invested in school buildings never tells the whole story. 

“It isn’t just money in, outcomes out,” said Mary Filardo, the 21st Century School Fund’s founder and executive director.

Without significant federal investment, Filardo says that even when money is made available through local tax increases or bond programs, low-income communities bear a disproportionate burden in putting those funds to use beyond the most basic maintenance of struggling buildings.

“You can be a wealthy district and decide you’re going to spend on a black box theater,” she said, “Another district might be spending less, but they’re replacing a roof that’s failing. It isn’t just ‘money in,’ it’s what are the conditions, what gets done, and how does it get done.”

The sources of income can also vary based on the relative affluence of a school district.

In addition to more available property tax dollars, more affluent communities tend to have more philanthropic giving, said Kerri Ranney, an attorney and architect who works for Huckabee, an architecture and engineering firm in Austin, Texas, that develops learning environments including public schools. As the Center for American Progress highlighted in a 2017 study, a Parent-Teacher Organization in a wealthy district might be able to fund a new piece of playground equipment or other upgrades through private giving rather than navigating the complicated funding process. And in areas with low property values and significant poverty, general school funds often go toward social supports like food, clothing, and health care before they can be used for improved air filtration systems, pest management, or even a fresh coat of paint.

“This just creates a further divide between affluence and poverty,” said Ranney, who has worked in many low-income communities and communities of color on school facilities projects.

Run-down school facilities burden everyone who interacts with them, and sometimes they are a top reason cited by teachers who leave the field, a factor that is likely to only increase in the coronavirus era. 

In 2005, education researcher Buckley completed a study identifying school facilities as a significant factor in teacher retention. Even controlling for other contributing factors like salary dissatisfaction and administrative frustration, Buckley found that facilities quality was a predictor of whether teachers would decide to leave the field.

Sara Lynch left the classroom after her experience teaching in Nashville. The leaking ceiling, black mold, and roaches and rodents that would often scatter when she first turned on her classroom light in the morning took their toll on her and led to her decision to shift into a career in public interest law. 

“I thought a lot while I was teaching that I had the choice to go every day—my students did not have any choice but to go to school every day, and they would get in trouble if they didn’t,” she said. “It made me realize how unfair it was for them.”

Building Toward Solutions

Some stay in the education field explicitly to work on improving facilities conditions. Jesse Barron was a TFA corps member in 2009-2010 in the Mississippi Delta. His first year in the classroom, he was in a 250-square-foot converted custodial closet teaching middle school math and afterschool graphic and web design. 

Over the summer, the middle school where he taught got an addition, and he landed one of the new, state-of-the-art classrooms his second year. He saw first-hand how significantly teachers benefited from improved facilities. 

Today, Barron is assistant director of facilities planning for Irving Unified School District in California, where he has overseen multiple major school renovation and reconstruction projects. His experience in the classroom, he says, guides him to consider the facilities quality through the eyes of children.

“COVID has accelerated and highlighted the conversation about the importance of facilities planning and maintenance.”

Jesse Barron

Assistant Director of Facilities Planning, Irving Unified School District

Mississippi Delta Corps Member 2009

“COVID has accelerated and highlighted the conversation about the importance of facilities planning and maintenance,” he said. “Teach For America gave me the perspective that at the end of the day, I’m working for the kids…. My hope is that local education agencies continue to focus on the importance of facilities master planning and proper resource management.”

But sometimes, school facilities issues can become so dire that students feel compelled to advocate for themselves.

In September 2016, students from five of Detroit’s lowest-performing schools sued the state of Michigan for providing what their complaint alleges are “schools in name only, characterized by slum-like conditions.” 

The complaint, which was filed on behalf of five students aged 9 to 18, alleges a laundry list of unsanitary and unsafe conditions in the buildings, including extreme classroom temperatures—both freezing and, even in winter, more than 90 degrees due to faulty heating systems—unmitigated infestations of mice, cockroaches, and other vermin, undrinkable, hot drinking fountain water, broken sinks, doorless bathroom stalls, crumbling ceiling tiles that often fall in pieces during classes, and broken, hazardously sharp playground equipment.

In December 2019, following a report compiled by an attorney representing the students, Detroit Public Schools Community District superintendent Nikolai Vitti proposed some initial plans to move students to better facilities while further plans are made. The report projected the price tag for capital repairs and renovations at more than $500 million.

One State’s Historic Solution to a Widespread Problem

Rhode Island’s schools, like every other state’s, are struggling with whether they can meet CDC guidelines around indoor air quality, as well as facing delays and challenges with getting funding where it needs to go to protect students and educators.

The difference is that Rhode Island has been a national leader in prioritizing funding for comprehensive school facilities improvement. Seth Magaziner, a 2006 South Louisiana alum, ran for General Treasurer of the state in 2014, campaigning on a focus on school facilities assessment and improvement. 

A 2017 report funded by the state’s School Building Authority and Department of Education and conducted by Jacobs Engineering laid out in jarringly clear terms that the situation was at what Magaziner calls “a crisis point.” 

Every single school in Rhode Island needed something substantial to meet even the most basic standards of providing buildings that are “warm, safe, and dry,” not to mention being set up as healthy, sustainable 21st-century learning environments.

The problem was in fact universal—schools in the affluent district of Newport required nearly $30 million in improvements. But dense urban areas and low-income districts, often home to more people of color, were more significantly impacted; Providence showed around $150 million in urgent needs. 

Among their basic problems, Magaziner said, schools were unsafe, not accessible for disabled students and staff, and had hazardous materials on site. “We had to do something big and we had to do it quickly,” he said.

In 2018, voters overwhelmingly supported a $250 million bond that represented a radical and historic statewide investment in school buildings. The measure earned 77 percent approval, with only one town rejecting it. 

The vote also activated additional future funding—at least $80 million per year for the next decade—that the state’s General Assembly will appropriate toward school construction, improvement, and maintenance. And in 2022, a second $250 million bond will appear on the ballot.

“Altogether, this is going to be more than a $2 billion investment,” Magaziner said. “In Rhode Island, that’s a big number.”

The funding plan provides more money for schools in underserved areas, which Christine Lopes-Metcalfe, the CEO of the School Building Authority at the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), says is infusing enthusiasm and hope into communities that didn’t dare dream beyond “warm, safe, and dry.”  

“Some districts had financial constraints that made it difficult,” she said. “This new pot of money and this new excitement has re-energized them to come in and have those conversations.”

The initiative stands out nationwide for its comprehensiveness and for the community input and buy-in Rhode Island’s leaders have been able to secure, according to the 21st Century Fund’s Filardo. “It’s absolutely fantastic that people have come together around this issue and are beginning to step up,” Filardo said.

At the same time, though, she said state leaders need to be prepared for years of significant investment ahead, just as it took years of neglect for the schools to become so troubled. Officials and educators “should be humbled and sobered by the extent of the responsibility they are going to have,” particularly in light of the further disruptions associated with the pandemic.

“There’s just so much need,” agreed Lopes-Metcalfe. 

The Road Forward

The work to bring American public school facilities far beyond “warm, safe, and dry,” especially as the impacts of the pandemic are felt across the country's public school systems, is what occupies educators, advocates, and students alike.

In the 1990s, Mary Filardo started the 21st Century School Fund after a years-long project advocating for reconstruction of the Oyster School in Washington, D.C. The original building was constructed in 1926 and it only had plumbing on the first floor. What she learned as she assembled a collaborative team of political leaders, parents, and educators has become a best practice for districts across the country.

An “education facilities master plan” is, she argues, the key to bringing communities together to support school facilities in ways that support both learning and well-being. In her experience, when a broad group is brought together to plan long-term support for facilities, the entire community benefits. 

Master plans take on new meaning in the COVID-19 era, and collaboration is key to sharing best practices during the pandemic. The National Council on School Facilities, which Filardo also leads, worked with more than 100 local district and state facilities officials on a webinar series, which resulted in a “Reopen Scenario Workbook” for schools to use in assessing and planning for the safe reopening of schools, at different utilization levels, from preschool through high school. 

The materials include a companion “Budget Estimates Workbook” that estimates the costs associated with 40 different reopening strategies, including improved air quality, filtration, and circulation, cleaning and disinfecting protocols, and health and hygiene infrastructure.

Facilities professionals often talk about the future of public education as being “21st-century learning spaces.” But COVID-19 has laid bare not only how integral the quality of public school buildings is to the health, education, and safety of American communities, but also how low-income communities bear the heaviest burden in improving school facilities.  

As the pandemic continues to unfold and, eventually, fade in urgency, Filardo hopes a critical mass of people will have learned that school facilities are a problem that literally cannot be ignored any longer. In fact, she sees the current moment as an opportunity for a sea change in how school facilities are understood, funded, and prioritized. “The physical environment of our school buildings and grounds has been an under-appreciated partner in health and education for students and staff,” she said. 

“The pandemic can help us make our facilities conditions a priority,” she added. “In particular, we can make sure there are federal and state dollars for school facilities infrastructure improvements for low-wealth and high-need districts.”

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