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Many Boston public schools are said to have bad air

Report calls poor ventilation, leaking roofs red flags

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh said the city’s schools have a “history of neglect.”
Boston Mayor Martin Walsh said the city’s schools have a “history of neglect.” (Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/file)

A city report says that more than half of Boston’s schools are plagued by poor or deficient air quality, which studies have linked to low student achievement and high rates of asthma.

The findings, released Wednesday, are based on an examination of schools’ ventilation systems or the lack of them, and other factors that can affect air quality, including the inability to open windows.

Air quality itself was not measured.

The examination revealed that more than half of the schools have inadequate ventilation and some need new roofs or major repairs to them. Poor air circulation can cause rooms to become hot, humid, and stuffy, which can trigger asthma attacks. Leaky roofs can cause mold.

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“Maybe that’s why my son has asthma,” said Kenny Jervis, whose son attends Clap Elementary School in Dorchester, where the air quality was rated deficient, the lowest rating. “This is very enlightening. My son developed asthma in kindergarten.”

The report gave the Clap’s ventilation system a poor rating and noted the roof needed to be replaced. Jervis said that water leaks at the school, which was built in 1896, are well known and that the basement, where students eat lunch, often smells musty.

The asthma rate among students across the city schools is about 16 percent, but some schools are higher than 30 percent, according to the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, an advocacy organization that works on workplace issues.

The report, produced under a city initiative called BuildBPS, assessed the condition of all schools and their ability to offer a 21st-century education.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who unveiled the report, said the poor air quality points to the need to overhaul school buildings, more than half of which were built before World War II and have been deteriorating due to a “history of neglect.” Walsh has pledged $1 billion toward the effort over the next 10 years.

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“We have heating systems that are 50 years old. That adds to the poor air quality. Not having good windows, not having good circulation” adds to poor air quality, Walsh said. “Even if we are waiting for schools to be fixed, we still have to fix the problem of quality in those schools. Air is one of those important qualities.”

The findings come on the heels of a crisis last year over lead-tainted water in schools that prompted the district to turn off dozens of water fountains and stock bottled water. The tap water at most city schools is not drinkable.

The report did not identify specific solutions to address the deteriorating buildings, sidestepping divisive questions about whether any schools should be closed or replaced.

The lack of overall ratings for each school also makes it difficult to assess which are in the worst shape. Instead, the report gives ratings in four categories: building condition; outside site conditions; learning environment, which includes air quality; and learning spaces, which focuses on adequate classroom size and space for gymnasiums, cafeterias, music, art, and other programs.

The city plans public meetings in the coming months to come up with solutions.

Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said Wednesday that he is concerned the report paints an overly rosy view of conditions, with too many buildings deemed to be in fair condition — the mid-level ranking — and that more should have been rated as poor or deficient.

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The report concluded that building conditions at three schools were poor, none were deficient, and about half were fair. The rest were good or excellent.

“If you ask people who work in the buildings, the overwhelming sentiment is that our buildings are in poor condition, whether it’s due to the quality of air; or the lack of facilities for art, music, lunch, or gym; or a lack of cleanliness,” Stutman said.

Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a watchdog funded by businesses and nonprofits that hosted the luncheon, questioned why some schools cannot close in the near future, given that the report concluded the schools could accommodate an additional 10,000 students.

“Right now we have excess capacity, and we are spreading dollars thin,” Tyler said.

But the report noted the number of students who could be educated at the schools could be reduced by 10,000 as schools are renovated and spaces are created for cafeterias, music, art, and other programs.

The findings on air quality offer a fresh perspective on an issue the school system has been working to address for years. It builds upon environmental audits the school system conducts annually.

“Boston Public Schools and the City of Boston consider the health and well-being of students and staff our top priority,” the School Department said in a statement.

Tolle Graham, who has worked with a number of Boston schools as a labor environment coordinator at MassCOSH, said Boston has endeavored to reduce environmental triggers for asthma. The district, for instance, uses “green” cleaners instead of chemical products and is being more mindful of overall cleanliness.

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But she said other schools are hamstrung by cuts in custodial staffs and repair requests that go unfilled for years.

“We can be doing a lot better job maintaining the schools we have,” Graham said. “Right now, we only see a triage approach to repairing and modernizing our schools in Boston.”


Meghan E. Irons of the Globe staff contributed to this report. James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.