From guinea pigs to fish, from cats to even tarantulas, pets have long been beloved diversions in classrooms.
But with new concerns over air quality in schools and the cleanliness of classrooms that house animals, it seems that such pets increasingly have to find new homes.
The issue is deeply emotional for students, who often bond with pets, and for teachers who rely on them to promote learning. District officials say they must weigh those benefits, though, against other considerations.
“These are issues that are surfacing more and more, environmental issues and educational issues,” said Superintendent Roberta P. DiLorenza of the 2,100-student Washington, Pa., schools. Responding to worries about air quality and students’ health, her district is reconsidering classroom pets this summer.
“Our main focus is student achievement,” Ms. DiLorenza said, “and if some of these things have to go, then perhaps these are sacrifices we have to make.”
William B. Samuels, the director of humane education for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, based in Greenwich, Conn., warns that districts attempting to ban classroom pets will likely see a backlash from teachers and students.
Pets “can greatly benefit children, and can really be a powerful force” in motivation and interest in schoolwork, he said.
But as anyone with allergies knows, the issue of air quality is nothing to sneeze at.
Research has established that classroom pets—particularly those with fur or feathers—can trigger students’ and teachers’ asthma and allergy symptoms.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends barring pets from classrooms as a precaution, said Alisa M. Smith, a biologist with the EPA who studies indoor-air pollutants in schools.
Local agencies have reached similar conclusions.
Following a 2001 study of school air-quality in Palm Beach County, Fla., the county health department recommended as well that schools ban pets.
Chris M. Skerlec, the environmental-control officer for the 165,000-student Palm Beach County schools, said some classrooms had too many pets and were not being kept clean.
One elementary school even kept animals such as emus and prairie dogs in an outside courtyard. Because the area was near the air-conditioning system, the waste from the animals contaminated the entire school’s air supply, Mr. Skerlec said.
Ultimately, the district settled on a compromise that allows animals at that school for short stays, but mandates that they must be removed if a student or teacher becomes ill. Principals can also remove an animal if it is not being cared for properly.
“Learning about animals is an important issue, but when it creates a health hazard, the animal has to go and the student takes priority,” Mr. Skerlec said.
Meanwhile, he added, 30 Palm Beach County elementary schools are responding to the county’s study by implementing a clean-air program recommended by the American Lung Association, which requires a ban on pets.
For schools that insist on pets, the EPA suggests that one way to minimize any ill effects on students is to locate the animals in one part of the classroom and keep the area clean.
Teachers who have made their classrooms habitats for small creatures say that students benefit socially and academically from the pets. And there’s some research to back up their assertions.
In 2001, the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, a trade group based in Greenwich, Conn., commissioned a study with researchers from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.
The researchers found that pets in the classroom can increase enthusiasm for school and learning, decrease disruptive behavior, teach management of stress and anxiety, and help children learn to value nature.
With teachers’ guidance, pets also can play in math and science lessons on such topics as weights, basic anatomy, and reproduction.
Teachers with classroom pets are the animals’ strongest advocates.
Sue Irvine, a kindergarten teacher at Dodson Elementary School in Hermitage, Tenn., brings her cat, Crackerjack, to school every day to cavort with her pupils. Crackerjack began the job when he was 6 weeks old. He is now 14.
Ms. Irvine introduces Crackerjack at the start of each school year and reads a story about pets to the new students. She explains that their special friend should be honored and respected. The orange and white cat has become the focal point of many of Ms. Irvine’s instructional themes, including reading, computer skills, and Spanish.
The children “are so excited about having him and interested in him that we decided to mold the entire curriculum around him,” Ms. Irvine said.
Crackerjack also helps ease behavior problems, she said. If a child is upset or acting up, playing with Crackerjack seems to calm the youngster’s emotions, she added.
Students who have allergies or asthma are assigned to one of the school’s five other kindergarten classes that do not have pets.
Elsewhere, students at East Elementary School in Greenville, Pa., have dubbed Jan Abernethy’s 5th grade class the “Pet Paradise.”
Those students keep watch over an iguana, a lizard, a ferret, a cockatiel, a hamster, a rabbit, and two rats. They’ve used the pets as part of science projects and presentations. Pupils are charged with cleaning cages and feeding the pets.
“The positive effects have been unbelievable,” Ms. Abernethy said. “The responsibility [the students] learn is second to none.”
Besides matters of student health, other considerations require schools to take a close look at how animals are handled in the classroom, as well as outside the school when classes are over.
Caring for Pets
Animals have been mistreated and harmed by students who did not know how to care for them, said JoEllyn Rich, an education specialist with the Humane Society of Missouri, which is based in St. Louis. Further, she added, teachers may not be prepared for other issues that might arise, such as an animal’s sickness or death.
And then there’s the question of how and where pets will receive care during summers, school holidays and weekends. Some teachers resort to dropping them off at the Humane Society’s shelters, or sending the pets home with students who may not know how to take care of them, Ms. Rich said.
“Towards the end of the school year, we see a rise in what we call ‘our little critters,’ that were classroom pets,” she said.
In fact, after seeing hundreds of classroom pets left without homes at the end of the school year, the Humane Society of Missouri now refuses to let teachers adopt pets from the society for classroom use, Ms. Rich said.
The group recommends several alternatives to classroom pets, such as inviting rescue organizations to bring animals to classes for visits; taking students on field trips to animal shelters, zoos, or wildlife preserves; and encouraging class projects such as raising funds for a local shelter.
Ms. Abernethy, though, remains convinced that a classroom pet is a good thing—when it is done correctly: “A teacher has to be responsible to have the pets, but I think it would be such a shame to have them go away.”