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Investigative News

Connecticut lawmakers weighing two bills that could improve school air quality

Air purifier in Bridgeport classroom.jpg
Photo provided by teacher
/
Photo provided by teacher
An air purifier in a classroom in Bridgeport

This comes a month after Gov. Ned Lamont earmarked $90 million for air quality upgrades, following reporting by Connecticut Public’s Accountability Project that one-third of school districts don’t have the money to upgrade their own HVAC systems.

Connecticut legislators may soon consider two bills that could help improve air quality in Connecticut schools.

This comes a month after Gov. Ned Lamont earmarked $90 million for air quality upgrades, following reporting by Connecticut Public’s Accountability Project that one-third of school districts don’t have the money to upgrade their own HVAC systems.

Louise Morrison, a math and science teacher at Thompson Middle School, has worked in one of those districts for 20 years. Her classroom flooded from a heavy rainstorm a few years ago, causing mold that has created poor air quality conditions to this day.

“I have sinus issues all the time from my classroom; there’s a lot of mold in the building,” said Morrison.

School air quality has always been an issue in Thompson, Morrison said. Another school in her district, Mary R. Fisher Elementary School, has classrooms that reach 100 degrees, with no air conditioning and windows that open only two inches.

“Last year one of our teachers suffered from heatstroke because he had been in those hot classrooms for so long,” she said.

The Thompson school district is not alone because Connecticut schools have no air quality standards, but the two bills before the General Assembly could change that.

Both bills, one from the Public Health Committee and one from the Labor & Public Employees Committee, make use of the $90 million Lamont designated for improving HVAC systems in schools. These bills establish temperature standards, a mold reporting system and an air quality monitoring program through local boards of education.

Extreme temperatures, both hot and cold, as well as mold are two of the main factors that contribute to poor air quality in schools, so they are the focus of both bills. The air quality monitoring program, administered through local boards of education, would conduct routine check-ins to ensure that schools are meeting the standards set in the bills.

Kate Dias, a Manchester High School math teacher and president of the Connecticut Education Association, feels that the issue of school air quality has been pushed down the line in almost every community in Connecticut.

“There needs to be some temperature standards, we have them for pet stores, and we should have them for schools,” said Dias.

Dias and the Connecticut teachers union are advocating for passage of the Labor & Public Employees Committee’s air quality bill, SB 423, which the CEA helped create. The other bill, SB 5479, is from the Public Health Committee and differs slightly in specifics around an acceptable temperature range and enforcement. However, Dias emphasized that neither bill will be sufficient in creating long-overdue standards for school air quality.

The most effective, low-cost strategy many of these schools have at the moment is to simply open classroom windows to let in fresh air, but Dias said this is hardly a solution.

“Are these school buildings healthy for us to be in? And the answer can't be open windows,” said Dias.

State Sen. Saud Anwar, a pulmonologist and vice chair of the Public Health Committee, has pushed for improving school air quality since 2019. Anwar, who is sponsoring SB 423, feels that legislators have a responsibility to invest in the health of Connecticut’s children and teachers.

“As a lung doctor who actually ends up seeing a lot of people working in school systems who are getting sick, I am very cognizant of how an individual’s life is impacted by our old buildings,” said Anwar.

Though he supports the two bills, Anwar echoed Lamont’s sentiment that the $90 million influx is just the start of addressing school air quality. Still, the standards and regulatory bodies will set a necessary framework for understanding which schools need more funding.

The legislature has until the end of its session in May to vote on the bills.