Reflections from the Healthy Schools – Healthy Children Conference

I just returned from the Healthy Schools – Healthy Children Conference in Philadelphia and am all atwitter with excitement from hearing great speakers and meeting interesting people.  The event was organized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic, and included a keynote speech by Claire Barnett of the Healthy Schools Network.

The conference was very effective in both characterizing background issues around school health and also providing topic-specific deep dives on issues such as good ventilation practices, school and home asthma management, and radon management.  Though many of the ideas and faces were familiar to me, there is always more to learn and new people to learn from.   

In Pennsylvania, 57% of schools have at least one building element (roof, walls, windows, etc.) in unsatisfactory condition.

I heard other perspectives on school health and revisited the reasons we continue to work on our healthy schools initiative here in Western Pennsylvania.  The statistics shared were a stark reminder of why this work is important and how systemic the challenges are.  Here is a sampling of some sobering facts:

• Ninety-five percent of people who are regularly in schools are women and children, our most vulnerable populations.
• In the next few years, the majority of children in the U.S. public school system will qualify for free or reduced lunches, a primary indicator of poverty.
• Due to dwindling resources, fewer kids are in special education programs than just a few years ago; this is despite continual increases in the rates of autism spectrum disorder diagnoses.
• In Pennsylvania, 57% of schools have at least one building element (roof, walls, windows, etc.) in unsatisfactory condition.
• Philadelphia School District has over 100 fewer school nurses than they did at the start of the 2011-2012 school year.
• North Penn School District is down 15 custodians from last school year.

These challenges are very real and are affecting school districts across Pennsylvania (including our region) – be they urban, suburban, or rural.  “Okay, point taken,” you might say.  “So what now?”  Here’s the other side of the coin… There’s much that can be done and it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg; it just takes commitment and focus.  From the conference workshops, here are some examples of what can be accomplished:

• Having asthma doesn’t need to equate to missing school; it can be managed through effective use of medication and asthma-trigger reduction at home and in school (Asthma Management in Schools; Dr. Tyra Bryant-Stephens, Community Asthma Prevention Program).
• Improved ventilation systems can reduce asthma symptoms and improved air quality can reduce absenteeism (Fresh Air: Optimal HVAC Management for Improved Health; Ian Hadden, University of Arkansas at Little Rock).
• Products that reduce indoor air emissions are readily available and effective, including cleaning products, furniture, paint, and flooring (Breathe Easy: Smarter Product Choices for Better Indoor Air Quality; Dr. Marilyn Black, UL GREENGUARD).
• Integrated pest management techniques can reduce the need for and cost of pesticide usage in schools (School Integrated Pest Management: Pests, Pesticides, and Health; Michelle Niedermeier, Pennsylvania IPM Program).
• Tracking building conditions and the presence of moisture over time can help detect small problems before they become large mold issues (NIOSH Dampness & Mold Assessment Tool; Dr. Ju-Hyeong Park & Michelle Martin, NIOSH).
• Radon detection is simple and inexpensive, and mitigation may be as easy as adjusting the ventilation system (Schools and the Radon Risk; Matt Shields, PA Department of Environmental Protection).

With so many simple but effective steps available, perhaps school districts have already started down the right path. What are we already doing well and how can we build upon those successes?  And what can we learn from our peers? Philadelphia School District, a large system that has many similar challenges to Pittsburgh Public Schools and many other districts across the state, recently appointed a district Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) Coordinator.  This person will oversee the collection and investigation of indoor environmental complaints, develop a dashboard for school IEQ performance, and facilitate the assessment of 50 district schools by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).  Even that district will tell you that this is only the beginning and there is much more work to be done.  To draw from an old adage, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. 

The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

One of the largest benefits of this conference being held in Philadelphia is the abundance of support organizations and agencies in the vicinity.  The U.S. EPA Region 3 office (serving NY, PA, MD, DE, DC, VA, and WV) is located there and, in nearby Harrisburg, one can find the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic’s offices, the Pennsylvania Asthma Partnership, and a variety of state agencies such as the Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Health.

In Western Pennsylvania, we, too, can access these resources.  We just need to ask for them.  And, we need to have a network of organizations and schools in place to make the best use of them.  GBA stands ready to take on the challenge.  Join us in being part of the solution!

Want to learn more about GBA’s Green & Healthy Schools Academy? Check it out here!



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