Making Schools Green Inside, as Well as Out

How green are your schools? Green is always mentioned when I talk to school administrators or architects about construction projects, whether it is earning LEED points in the design of a new building or being aware of green concepts in remodeling and expanding existing schools, green is the way to go.   But with all the awareness of green in construction and facilities, how much attention is being paid to green in the operation of schools?

That question came to my mind when I read a newspaper article headed, “Perils of unhealthy schools explained at meeting.” The meeting, organized by Grassroots Environmental Education, featured a talk by Dr. Leonardo Trasande, an environmental health expert from the Mt. Sinai Hospital School of Medicine in New York City, who told about an inspection he had made of a school cafeteria.

The cafeteria itself was clean and well kept; one presumably could have eaten right off its shiny floors. But every child who went through the school’s cafeteria line punched in his or her individual code number on a plastic covered keyboard just before sitting down to eat. As Dr. Trasande pointed out, “…every kid was picking up every other kid’s bacterial burden… it would take a lot for a kid to stop and go to the washroom right then and there.”

The fault was not the children’s and it wasn’t the cafeteria management. The problem lay in the system, a system that I later confirmed, is in use at many schools.

Actually, it’s an excellent system in that every child does the same thing, whether paying full price, partial price, or getting a free lunch. Only the child and the district know who is paying and who is not, so there is no stigma. But the manner in which it is implemented creates an unnecessary health hazard. Since a clerk must watch the children punch in their codes, it would seem to me that a greener system would have children say the three-number code and let the clerk record it. That’s one small example of how green awareness can improve the health of children (and adults) in our schools.

Another Example
A few years ago, I wandered into a classroom that was stuffy and hot. The teacher and students were visibly uncomfortable. Although it was a beautiful spring day, all of the windows were tightly shut.

I asked why, and the teacher walked me to the back of the room to look outside. Eight diesel-powered school buses were parked under her window, motors running. They were waiting to pick up children in the half-day kindergarten program. “After they leave, we can open our windows — until they return to pick up students in the afternoon.”

There were two obvious problems in this situation. The first was the location — buses could and should have lined up away from the school, certainly away from classrooms. But the second question is why the motors were running.

A green district policy would require that buses waiting to pick up passengers be turned off, whether they are waiting underneath a classroom window or anywhere else. The fact is, properly maintained diesel buses start up easily under ordinary weather conditions. If drivers complain that they have trouble starting after turning their engines off, it’s likely that the problem lies with the bus maintenance, not with a policy that protects the environment and also, incidentally, can save on the cost of fuel.

How about the products you use to clean your schools? Many cleaning products contain volatile organic solvents or products that contain chlorine and other substances that can trigger asthmatic attacks in susceptible children. Doctors working on issues of children’s health at Mt. Sinai’s School of Medicine have found that many of the products used to clean and maintain schools are unnecessarily harmful to young children. “Unnecessarily” because there are products available that clean and sanitize that do not contain potentially harmful ingredients. I received a list of hundreds of them from Grassroots Environmental Education, the non-profit organization that sponsored the meeting at which Dr. Trasande spoke. 

I doubt that most school buildings are unhealthy for children. It made a good headline and it caught my eye, but it’s really unfair to schools and their employees who work very hard to make sure that schools are clean and healthy. But, there is no question that all of us use products and take actions that, environmentally speaking, could be improved.  This may be a good opportunity to review the policies of your schools and the products we use to insure that they are as green as possible.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."