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Nearly 2 million Pennsylvania students spend hours a day in thousands of schools across the state. They breathe air that circulates through the buildings, drink water from hallway fountains, and touch surfaces in spaces from classrooms to restrooms.
Years of surveys, policy research, and media reports from around the state suggest that some of these buildings likely pose health risks to students and staff. Schools are subject to safety, sanitation, and health inspections, but these requirements are handled by a mix of local, state, and federal agencies. Those records aren’t kept in a centralized, statewide database.
This makes it difficult for a family or taxpayer to easily access comprehensive information about whether a school facility is up-to-date on maintenance and inspections, information that is readily available for the state’s hospitals, nursing homes, and even local restaurants.
“It’s fragmented because there’s no requirement for it not to be,” said David Lapp, director of policy research with the Pennsylvania education nonprofit Research for Action.
And while most information can be requested from individual schools or districts, they don’t have an obligation to make those records or reports easy to understand, he added.
“Just like with any other kinds of school records, there’s some things that have to be reported, and there’s some things they don’t have to report, or can even keep from the public.”
How you can help
In an effort to locate overlooked or underreported school infrastructure problems, Spotlight PA is asking for input from community members, students, families, school faculty and staff across Pennsylvania: What are your biggest questions or worries about school facilities in your area?
We want to know about any infrastructure problems — a moldy ceiling, flaky paint, unreliable phone or internet connections, or faulty elevators, for example — that interfere with learning or create a potentially unsafe environment for students and staff.
We’re collecting information about all types of education facilities serving students in kindergarten to 12th-grade, including public, charter, and private schools, as well as career and technical schools or intermediate unit facilities. Your input will inform our reporting and help us identify problems affecting students across the state.
Why we’re collecting information
Concerns about the health and safety of Pennsylvania school facilities aren’t new, and many public schools have struggled to upgrade aging buildings due to a lack of state funding. Over the past two years, the coronavirus pandemic heightened existing concerns about issues like air quality and ventilation.
A 2014 school facilities survey overseen by the Pennsylvania Department of Education — the most recent available — included information from 211 of the state’s 500 public school districts, along with two charter schools.
About 82% of the 1,194 buildings covered in the survey were constructed before 1990, just one year after a federal regulation banned the use of asbestos in some building materials.
The survey also found that about 24% of those buildings were rated by school leaders to be in poor or fair condition. Districts flagged their mechanical and plumbing systems as some of the biggest problems.
That survey hasn’t been updated in eight years, but a 2021 report from Women for a Healthy Environment, a Pittsburgh-based environmental nonprofit, suggests that schools across the state still face similar health hazards, in large part because of aging school infrastructure.
Of the 65 public school districts surveyed in the 2021 report, about 57 tested for lead in drinking water. Of that total, 91% found lead present. About 46 of the surveyed districts tested for mold, and 78% of them found it in their buildings.
The oldest school included in the sample was constructed in 1908. On average, schools included in the survey were constructed in 1964.
These surveys offer a helpful snapshot of the hazards found in schools throughout the state, but still do not give a school-by-school look at facility conditions.
This lack of data is one reason the American Society of Civil Engineers, a professional association that tracks the quality of public infrastructure across the country, gave Pennsylvania’s school infrastructure a grade of C-, or “mediocre,” in a 2018 report — slightly better than the D+, or “poor” rating, awarded to schools nationwide in 2017.
Low levels of state funding to support construction costs for upgrades and maintenance of school buildings also contributed to the low grade, according to the report.
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