Three Ways We Can Make Schools Healthier This Year

From lead plumbing to a lack of air-conditioning, schools across the United States are jeopardizing the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff.

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Students are back-to-school, catching up with friends, learning new schedules, and meeting new teachers. But depending on the school, they may be facing a new year of unnecessary health risks too.

Between kindergarten and high school graduation, the average student spends more than 15,000 hours in a school building. During that time, many are likely to sip lead-contaminated water, sweat in sweltering classrooms, and eat overly processed meals.

The good news? We can help these conditions become a thing of the past. Here are three ways to make schools healthier and safer—for everyone in them.

Filter drinking water

The crisis in Flint, Michigan, opened the nation’s eyes to the problem of lead-contaminated drinking water in people’s homes. But in tens of thousands of schools across the country, lead also poses a serious risk. And children, whose brains are still developing, are especially susceptible to the neurotoxin. Lead can lower IQs, limit the ability to concentrate, and cause behavior problems. There is no safe level of lead in drinking water, and the best way to keep students safe is to filter out the lead.

Credit: Angie Wheeler/Alamy

School drinking water doesn’t necessarily get contaminated from lead service lines connected to water mains outside, like what happened in Flint. Instead, the pipes and fixtures inside the buildings themselves, many of which are aging, may be leaching lead. And with water sitting stagnantly over weekends and school breaks, even more lead is able to collect in them. Since federal law doesn’t prohibit lead in plumbing and fixtures—and even supposed “lead-free” options still contain some lead—experts say we would likely find evidence of this heavy metal in the water of most schools.

“Many parents are surprised to learn that the laws that are supposed to protect drinking water generally don’t apply to individual schools,” says Angela Guyadeen, who directs NRDC’s Safe Water Initiative.

In 2018, NRDC found at least 82 percent of public school buildings in New York State had at least one faucet or drinking fountain that tested about 15 parts per billion (ppb). The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against lead levels in school drinking water exceeding 1 ppb, though it affirms that no amount of lead is safe. (New York has since made some progress toward reducing lead in public schools by lowering the action level from 15 ppb to 5 ppb, increasing the frequency of testing, ensuring schools with high lead levels provide free alternative water, and dedicating state funding to replacing pipes and plumbing.)

New York and other states also require lead testing, but this can be unreliable, and replacing pipes and fixtures can be cost-prohibitive. A better, cheaper, and faster solution is to filter the water.

NRDC has developed a “Filter First” model, which is based on a Washington, D.C., law that requires schools to filter their drinking water before testing it for lead. Going straight to filtering addresses the potential problem and saves money on testing. States can adapt the model to their needs, and last year, lawmakers in Michigan introduced two bills, which, if passed, would make Michigan the first state to require filters on school water fountains and faucets.

Take action: Parents are some of the fiercest advocates for their children’s health and safety. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions and get involved with this issue in your school district,” says Joan Leary Matthews, senior attorney with NRDC’s Safe Water Initiative. After all, it was the work of a coalition of local activist groups that led to the recent policy advancements addressing lead in school water in New York and Newark, New Jersey.

Cool the schools

On the last day of May, with temperatures reaching into the upper 90s, the Baltimore and Philadelphia public school systems dismissed students early—an occurrence that will become more frequent as the climate crisis accelerates. Like many schools across the country, their buildings lack air-conditioning, which can not only make classrooms unbearably hot but unsafe too. Heat also makes it difficult for students to learn, and teachers, who have few breaks during the day, are particularly vulnerable.

Juanita Constible, a climate and health advocate at NRDC, says that in addition to heat stress standards that would protect workers—teachers, janitors, bus drivers—the country urgently needs to retrofit aging schools and build new ones with climate change in mind. First and foremost, schools need better cooling and ventilation systems. (Some teachers have resorted to supplying their own fans and window AC units for their classrooms.) Other ideas include passive cooling measures like strategic shading—through planting trees and covering windows, for example—to help school buildings stay cooler on the hottest days.

Constible also encourages school districts to consider shifting schedules and calendars based on heat trends and to offer training for teachers and other staff on how to recognize symptoms of heat-related illness. Lastly, she says, there is no reason that schools shouldn’t have solar panels on their wide-open and flat roofs—a move that’s not only good for the climate, but for cash-strapped administrations as well.

Credit: Billy Hustace/Getty Images

“It's not just about what happens during the school day—it's all the other days of the year as well,” Constible reminds us. School buildings aren’t only used for education; they also function as cooling centers during power outages, disaster relief emergency shelters, and election polling sites. “Schools are a central part of our communities, so getting them shipshape and ready to roll is really important.”

Take action: Are your schools optimizing their fan and window use? Is there a district sustainability officer tasked with making the school environment more comfortable as the climate heats up? As a parent or local community member, you can raise these types of questions at a school board meeting. Find out what your school is doing to adapt to the impacts of climate change, and rally local legislators to fund climate resilience initiatives in school—just as residents and advocates of Chicago’s Southeast Side are calling on their public schools to do.

Prioritize school food

School food became an even more essential lifeline for many students and their families at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a time that also shone a light on the inequities of school food access. Now, nearly 2.5 years later, we have an opportunity to improve school meals and transform the system to serve all.

Credit: Amanda Mills/CDC

Among other things, a series of pandemic-era federal waivers made school breakfast and lunch universally free, allowing at least 10 million additional children to receive the meals. Just before they were set to expire at the end of June, Congress voted to extend some of the waivers through the summer, but after some pushback, it removed universal access to free meals. However, California and Maine, following the pre-pandemic moves of cities like New York, have already become the first states to create programs that make meals available to all students, regardless of income. And two bills currently in Congress aim to make school breakfast and lunch universally accessible across the country.

This is promising, but we also need to make sure school food is as healthy as possible. “We don't just want to give kids calories,” says Lena Brook, director of NRDC’s food campaigns. “We also want to make sure that school meals are nourishing, minimally processed, and rely on suppliers whose practices protect health and the environment.”

California’s Farm to School program, first piloted in 2021 and expanded this year, may serve as a model for getting healthier and more sustainable food into school lunchrooms. Brook says the program takes advantage of the fact that schools buy large quantities and on a regular basis to encourage buying produce from small- and medium-size BIPOC-run farms and from farms that are certified organic or use other climate-friendly practices. On a smaller scale, local initiatives around the country, like Choctaw Fresh Produce in Mississippi, also aim to make school meals better for growing bodies and the planet by supplying organic produce to cafeterias.

But in order for a school lunch program to be truly equitable, Brook says, we need to eliminate two-tier systems that tend to also serve up stigma. Students who qualify for reduced-price or free lunch—a determination based on family income level—can feel shamed or become a target for bullying. That divide becomes even more stark when the quality of cafeteria food differs greatly from a home-packed meal. “We need to make meals an essential part of the school day and normalize the experience of kids eating the same food together.”

Take action: Brook stresses that in order to truly change school food, we need to change public policy. Caregivers can start by educating themselves about the system’s inequities and the benefits of healthy, universal meals—for students and for farmers. While Brook doesn’t discourage engagement on a school-by-school basis, she notes that “districts are caught in such a complicated bind of rules and regulations that, in a lot of ways, their hands are tied.” But for parents who have the resources and motivation to press for change in their own child’s school cafeteria, the Chef Ann Foundation offers a helpful tool kit.

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