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Millions of students returning to aging school buildings that could threaten their health

Caution tape litters the floor of a classroom where crews are working to repair a caving floor (Photo: Andrea Nejman)
Caution tape litters the floor of a classroom where crews are working to repair a caving floor (Photo: Andrea Nejman)
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WASHINGTON (SBG) — As students head back to school for in-person learning this fall, a new national report reveals that schools across the country are in need of serious updates to their infrastructure. It's not just cosmetics: aging school buildings could pose a risk to student health and safety, and some say there's not enough funding to fix it all.

Hundreds of elementary school students will head back to school at one building in southern Virginia. But a class of fifth graders has been relocated to the library for their first day, unable to even enter the classroom they were supposed to call their homeroom.

In that classroom, Inside Your World Investigates discovered damage being repaired by crews in the waning days of summer. The floor had caved in. An aging HVAC unit was pulled from the wall. The ceiling tiles were stained with a leak from the roof. It's not surprising that the room was in need of updates; the school was built in the 1930s.

Less than 20 miles away sits the nation's oldest public school building in use today. Bedford County's iconic New London Academy was built in 1795. Stepping inside is like entering a time capsule.

Classrooms still have slate chalkboards and decades-old heating systems. The chalkboards are not used for instruction. School leaders told us they're proud of maintaining the school after 225 years, and say it's clean and spacious enough for the student body, but improvements can always be made.

Superintendent Marc Bergin of Bedford County Schools admits there's not always enough money to go around. "We do have a need for some renovations, and some modernization of our buildings," he told us. "We don't have the funding stream to do any of those things."

But his district is far from the only one facing challenges when it comes to maintaining key systems. They span urban and rural districts, big and small.

Aging school infrastructure is a nationwide challenge, highlighted in a recent national report.

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave US school infrastructure a grade of "D+" - reporting that only 4 in 10 public schools have no long-term plan to maintain their facilities.

It's a disturbing fact for Mary Filardo, Executive Director of the nonprofit 21st Century School Fund, who's made it her life's work to push for safer and more modern schools. It started when she sent her children to school in Washington DC.

"Seeing that my children and so many others were spending their school days in buildings with leaky roofs, fire code violations and poor air quality inspired my life's work," Mary Filardo told members of Congress in a recent hearing.

Among her biggest concerns - what she calls 'legacy toxics' present in aging school buildings. That includes asbestos, a known carcinogen that can lurk in aging ceilings. Dangerous lead is found in water pipes and drinking fountains throughout the U.S. The White House recently estimated that up to 400,000 schools and child care facilities may pose a threat of lead exposure to children.

Amid the threat of old toxins, there's a new challenge for student safety with the global pandemic. Experts agree that proper airflow is necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and that requires HVAC units to be up to speed. But according to the ASCE's data, 41% of schools reported issues with their HVAC systems.

The Government Accountability Office discovered in a 2020 report that about 36,000 schools nationwide need HVAC updates.

In Bedford County, Superintendent Marc Bergin told us his district was lucky. It was able to evaluate and replace aging HVAC systems thanks to federal funding from the COVID-19 economic rescue package known as the CARES Act.

But there's not enough money to go around. Recent estimates found a $38 billion nationwide shortfall for public schools when it comes to infrastructure funding.

A massive infrastructure package in Congress has grabbed the headlines for months. Many school officials are hopeful that the trillion-dollar infrastructure funding bill will include needed dollars for school repairs, but the details are still being hammered out.

"I'm hopeful that the current conversation in Washington DC is going to translate to real dollars to help all schools improve their infrastructure for the next generation of students," Bergin told us.

Meanwhile, local governments are working to find the funding needed for their districts. State Sen. David Marsden, D-Virginia, told Inside Your World Investigates he's toured schools throughout the Commonwealth, and observed multiple buildings that were deteriorating. He's fighting to make sure schools get the funding they need to put students in safe environments.

"Schools need every single tool at their disposal, including a great infrastructure, to make as many children as possible successes, both in school and for life afterward," State Sen. David Marsden, D-Virginia, told us.


Watch the ASCE's video laying out the problem with school infrastructure below - or read their full report by clicking HERE.

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