(Photo credit: Drazen Zigic via iStock)

More than a decade ago during my first year as principal of Clara Barton Elementary School on Chicago’s South Side, I experienced firsthand how inadequate school facilities can disrupt students’ education. It was August 2010, and the building’s broken air conditioners were no match for the high summer temperatures. 

As students sat at their desks attempting to read and write, they were sweating so much their pencils tore through the paper. Teachers had to double-layer their clothing because their perspiration made their clothes to stick to their bodies. In many cases, attendance suffered because parents were concerned their child’s asthma or other conditions would be aggravated by the high temperatures inside the school building and the lack of clean air. Winter was no better: The colder months brought failing heating systems that meant students and staff had to dress for the outdoors while inside of the building. The issues weren’t all weather-related, either. Other issues also plagued the school and had been reported as needing attention, including the lack of functioning student lockers, an under-resourced computer lab and dysfunctional computers, broken water fountains, and peeling paint. By district measures, Clara Barton was considered a struggling school, and that status was showing through in its facilities. 

But despite the conditions, teachers were still expected to teach and students were expected to learn, including performing on high-stakes assessments.  

Four years later, repairs began and the school community was excited to finally get the upgrades and repairs, but those changes only came once Clara Barton was designated a “turnaround school,” a status given to chronically low-performing schools that also resulted in all staff being terminated. The repairs and other changes ushered in years of academic, attendance, and student behavior improvements. But once the school was removed from the turnaround list, repairs were discontinued, and today Clara Barton still struggles with many of the same facilities problems that were evident my first year.

As I saw, school infrastructure and its effects on learning are often a neglected issue, but the impacts are real. A 2002 review of the literature on school infrastructure by the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education found a difference in student achievement between five to 17 percentile points in schools with above standard buildings versus schools with substandard buildings.  

In spite of the correlation between school performance and school infrastructure, one in three public school students continue to learn in school buildings that are in need of significant repairs. But this moment represents an opportunity to address those challenges. With the COVID-19 pandemic nationwide forcing schools to carefully consider whether and how school buildings can safely reopen and reduce the risk of transmitting the virus, facilities issues like what we faced at Clara Barton Elementary are top of mind for parents and policymakers alike. For example, the recently enacted American Rescue Plan Act provides more than $100 billion to school districts and expressly allows them to use some of those funds to repair school facilities to reduce risk of virus transmission and exposure to environmental health hazards, and to upgrade systems like air conditioning, ventilation, windows, and doors to improve air quality.

Beyond the legislation, addressing current disparities in education infrastructure will require policy leadership at all levels, and an intentional focus on our most marginalized youth. Also necessary is a focus on updating technology, including increasing broadband access, improving remote learning, and ensuring spaces are adequate for students, general education, and special education. States, districts, and the federal government should make this a priority and target efforts to schools that are in greatest disrepair. The pandemic makes these issues all the more pressing, as it’s disproportionately harming communities of color, mirroring and exacerbating existing educational inequities.

While many schools’ districts have found urgency in addressing these challenges so that schools can reopen safely, confidence remains an issue amongst many educators and families. This is in part due to the arcane nature of school infrastructure policies and the lack of understanding of the impact of poor school environments on students’ and staff’s need to feel safe and valued, including the motivation to perform. 

Addressing school infrastructure cannot just be a local issue. It requires a proactive agenda with strategic action at all levels including leadership, investments, collaboration, and planning, including more federal involvement in providing funding and oversight to ensure accountability. President Joe Biden’s newly proposed American Jobs Plan would represent a step in the right direction. The plan would provide significant federal funding for infrastructure investments, including $100 billion to modernize public schools through new construction and upgrades, as well as $25 billion to upgrade child care facilities and increase supply in high-need areas, and $12 billion for community college infrastructure needs.  

In addition, there are several policy solutions that can make a difference. First, the U.S. Department of Education should conduct an analysis of school infrastructure capacity, gathering data that can be disaggregated by education level, student categories (i.e., students with disabilities, English language learners, etc.), geography, zip code, and more, including knowledge of school facilities pre-pandemic. This will require coordination between the U.S. Department of Education, state agencies, and local school districts. Federal, state, and local agencies should facilitate conversations with teachers, parents, principals, students, facilities managers, community leaders, and other stakeholders regarding policy barriers to improving school facilities.

In addition, state departments of education should require school districts to develop long-term facilities plans for individual schools. According to the GAO, four in 10 public schools do not have long-term facilities plans. Creating longer term plans increases the likelihood of more accurate allocation of resources, funding, and innovations related to construction cost and maintenance. Finally, state departments of education and school districts should provide facilities experts to support the coordination and planning, as principals and other school stakeholders will be exploring this issue for the first time or may not have any understanding of the complex nature of dealing with school facilities issues.  

School infrastructure should be considered a human rights issue as it affects students’ and educators’ health, sense of belonging, and motivation to learn. While we can debate the appropriate role of different levels of government in improving education infrastructure, we should not underestimate current needs and inequities, or the importance of improving infrastructure to improve student outcomes.

This article was made possible in part through a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

Frank L. Gettridge is the executive director for the National Public Education Support Fund (NPESF). NPESF is a family of philanthropic networks working together to create and advance equitable and racially...