To the Editor:
Regarding your articles about absenteeism, including “Early Grades Are New Front in Absenteeism Wars,” (Oct. 20, 2010), the healthfulness and safety of the facilities themselves should also be considered when looking for reasons why students aren’t in school.
The Environmental Protection Agency states: “Studies show that one-half of our nation’s 115,000 schools have problems linked to indoor air quality. Students are at greater risk because of the hours spent in school facilities and because children are especially susceptible to pollutants.” A 2002 review of studies related to school facility condition, commissioned by the 21st Century School Fund, found links to student absenteeism, achievement, and behavior. School buildings can affect student health in many ways.
A Government Accountability Office report from 1995 lists irritated eye, nose, and throat; upper-respiratory infections; nausea; dizziness; headaches; and fatigue or sleepiness as some of the impacts of poor indoor environmental quality.
The health problems resulting from unhealthy school conditions impact students’ educations in a variety of ways: absenteeism due to building-related health problems; “presenteeism,” when children are present, but not able to do their best because they don’t feel well; and use of substitute teachers because classroom teachers are absent for the same reasons as their students.
As the EPA notes in “Tools for Schools”: “The price for neglect is high, but the investment in maintenance need not be.” Although some indoor-environmental-quality issues may stem from problems requiring costly repairs, others can be resolved with cost-neutral measures, such as switching to environmentally preferable cleaning products and practices.
Our investment in our children’s health and academic performance is essential. There is ample evidence that buildings affect people. We need to ensure that school facilities–our children’s compulsory workplaces–are safe, healthful places. Until all schools are safe and healthful, we should include the impact school facilities are having on students in our discussions about absenteeism.
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2011 edition of Education Week as Consider School Air Quality in Absentee Rates