Facilities (Learning Spaces)

U.S. Schools Struggle to Maintain a Healthy Learning Environment

Healthy Learning Environments


Public schools around the country are struggling to manage mold, asbestos in the walls and even unknown contamination underground — taxing their budgets and damaging public perceptions. A recent legal ruling in Malibu, Calif., mandating that the local schools proactively remove all PCBs, rather than just managing areas with known exposures, will likely drive more legal actions against schools in coming years. As environmental liabilities and related lawsuits from concerned citizens increase, K–12 school administrators nationwide are looking for ways to economically manage these risks, and some states are starting to mandate insurance coverage for environmental exposures.

Scope of the Problem

There are nearly 100,000 public schools in the U.S., used by over 55 million students, staff and administrators, that are, on average, over 44 years old. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, environmental factors including ventilation and air conditioning were found to be unsatisfactory in up to 17 percent of schools. The majority of U.S. public schools (73 percent) were built between before 1969, and almost all schools built between 1950 and the late ‘70s have hazardous PCBs in the caulk around the windows, and possibly elsewhere.

Schools can improve the environmental health of their buildings, and limit their environmental contamination risks, by working with insurers to develop risk management solutions that help improve the health of schools for students, teachers and other staff members. Proactive management of environmental pollution issues, backed by relevant insurance protection, will help ensure that administrators have the resources available to remediate polluted areas, and deal with public fallout from media coverage and concerned citizens.

Key Areas of Concern

There are a number of primary environmental contamination concerns facing educational facilities:

Mold and legionella top the list of concerns for educational facilities. Many education facilities were built decades ago and have cracks that are susceptible to leaks. Any leaks in the roofs or internal plumbing of a school can cause mold to form and quickly lead to an unsafe environment for both students and employees. Schools need to have funds available to quickly address any potential incidents of mold and replace impacted sheetrock and other building materials before the exposure spreads. Mold is also an issue in newly constructed schools, which often face time pressures that force contractors to start installing interior sheetrock before the exterior is completely sealed.

Legionella is commonly caused by old, or poorly managed HVAC systems, water treatment systems, fountains or pools and poses an immediate threat to student and employee health. Not only must schools pay to remediate impacted buildings, they are also liable for any related medical costs for students and staff that fall ill.

Storage tanks are commonly used by many schools to house either heating oil or fuel for buses and vehicle fleets. Many of these tanks are underground, creating the potential for soil pollution. Schools are obligated to remedy environmental pollution on their grounds from sources such as storage tanks, once it is identified, even if they weren’t previously aware of it. Leaking storage tanks can also create pollution in adjoining parcels that the schools are also responsible for remediating.

Historical contamination on school campuses often goes unnoticed until new construction projects are initiated on previously “unused” land. Many schools have historical pollution from chemicals that were improperly disposed of many years ago. Schools are obligated to pay for all remediation costs, on their property and any adjacent locations that are impacted, once pollution is discovered. While unknown, these are often among the largest costs schools bear in relation to environmental issues.

Damaged reputations are a frequent companion to environmental contamination issues at educational facilities. Environmental contamination issues at schools are frequently covered by both local and national media outlets driven by angry parents demanding a safe environment for their children, or teachers and other staff suffering from illness, and backed by their unions. Reputational management expenses can increase rapidly when either a pollution issue is discovered or students and teachers fall ill and the public starts hearing reports in the local media.

Recent examples

Mold — Wyoming West Middle School was closed indefinitely in September 2016, displacing 1,100 students, after mold was discovered following a burst pipe in the basement from 2011.

Legionella — Three schools in the Chicago suburb of Elgin, Ill., were closed in September 2016 after legionella was found in the cooling system. Although nobody was ill, all schools needed to be closed and decontaminated before students could return.

Underground Contamination — Development at a property adjacent to a former school bus depot in Hillsborough, N.C., was delayed after a leaky underground storage tank, first discovered in 1990, and a recent spill prevented developers from purchasing the property and starting new construction.

Asbestos — A Falmouth, Mass., school with identified asbestos issues faced a nearly $300,000 bill for the abatement and cleaning of 42,000 square feet of ceiling tiles.

What can schools do?

Schools have an obligation to their staff, students and communities to provide a safe and healthy learning space. Many of the environmental issues U.S. schools face are historical and/or unknown, making complete prevention of environmental contamination challenging, if impossible. Other issues, like those arising from mold or contaminated cooling systems, can only be prevented with timely and thorough remediation efforts once the problem is identified.

School and government officials can limit their total environmental risk, and get ready access to funds for necessary cleanup and remediation efforts, with pollution liability insurance. Environmental contamination is becoming more widespread and more high profile, and officials and administrators can benefit greatly from a comprehensive environmental risk management program coupled with insurance coverage from an experienced insurance partner.

What types of environmental insurance should schools consider?

Environmental liabilities at schools are best covered by specialized policies covering the specific exposures they face. Schools should work to select an insurer with related claims expertise and access to experienced consultants and contractors to manage pollution risks.

Some of the key coverages to consider

  • Disinfection costs coverage: Coverage for cleanup costs associated with bacteria, diseases or viruses that require reporting to federal, state or local government authorities (i.e., Ebola, Avian Flu, etc.). This protects schools in the event that someone sick with such an issue comes to their facility and they subsequently have to pay to decontaminate a portion of the school, or the entire facility.
  • Broad covered locations: Coverage for all property owned, leased or managed by the by the school. This assures that all school property is covered, without the need to schedule every location to the policy.
  • Reputation management reimbursement: Coverage for fees, costs, and expenses directly related to mitigating harm to a school’s reputation resulting from environmental pollution.
  • Bodily injury and property damage for asbestos and lead-based paint: Covers any individuals who get sick from asbestos or lead-based paint at a school location.
  • Inadvertent disturbance of asbestos and lead-based paint: Coverage for schools that accidentally release these substances into the environment, as long as it wasn’t during an abatement project.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .