As noted in a previous post, schools in America are more toxic and unhealthy than ever, mostly due to school budget cuts, old buildings and a general apathy regarding healthy schools in the USA. As a busy parent, toxic unhealthy schools can seem overwhelming. How on earth can you keep your child safe and healthy when most schools in America have serious air pollution problems? Luckily, there are some ways that you, the parent, can advocate for a less toxic U.S. school system. Until we manage to change the U.S. school system (it'll take a while) there are some smaller steps you can take to ensure that your child's school is as healthy as possible in the meantime. Following are the best ways that parents can advocate for healthier, less toxic schools.
Educate Yourself About Non-Toxic Schools
Do you actually know what constitutes a green and healthy school environment? For example, is mold worse than lead-based paint? Do green cleaners really make a difference? Does school location matter? If you’re unclear about what makes a healthy school environment, it’s time to learn. You can’t make sure your child’s school is healthy if you don’t get the facts. Following are some easy starter guides all about healthy, non-toxic schools:
- This Vinyl School – a handy interactive guide to PVC in schools.
- PCBs in Schools – learn what PCB exposure is and how kids can avoid exposure in schools.
- Mold at school (pdf) – facts about mold exposure and prevention.
- Parent’s Guide to School Air Quality (pdf) – a basic, short, yet informative guide on all things indoor air quality related.
- Playground Safety (pdf) – how to avoid and fix toxic issues in school play areas.
- Non-toxic school supplies – why send your kid to school with toxic supplies?
- Beyond Pesticides toxin guide – become a parent expert on various chemicals.
- Green Schools Initiative – an awesome, easy to mange website all about green and healthy schools.
Give Your Child a Healthy Start
If you’re going the public school route, it’s tough to choose your child’s ideal primary, middle and high school. Often districts and red-tape halt transfers. However, as a parent, you have more choices regarding early childhood education, so make those choice count. Younger children are more vulnerable to harmful chemicals and toxic air pollution so choosing a healthy day care or preschool is a must and gives your child a healthier start in life. Before you start your search, read our handy guide about how to choose a non-toxic day care for your child.
Support Healthy School Policy
As a parent you should support national, state and local policy that mandate healthier, safer schools. During elections, pay attention to what candidates are saying about healthy schools. Support candidates who address, support and fund healthy school design and renovations, use of environmentally preferable materials, greener supplies and removal of harmful substances such as mold and PVC. Candidates you vote for should express concern for a parents “right to know” about school hazards. Go a step further by offering public testimony at local and state governmental levels and get students involved by encouraging them to write letters to campaigns to lobby local, state, or national policy decision-makers about specific school policy changes. Not sure where to start when it comes to non-toxic school policy? Try the following resources:
- Get involved with the Children’s Environmental Health Network.
- The School Health Policies and Practices Study (SHPPS) is a national survey that assess school health policies and practices at the state, district, school and classroom levels. If you’re not sure about current school policies in your state, your local SHPPS state report card is a good place to start.
- The American School Health Association (ASHA) has an excellent Guide to Advocacy (pdf) that discusses how to lobby, create grass roots campaigns, how to get the media involved and more that can help you create change in schools. ASHA also has a webpage discussing how to locate need-to-know information on US legislators.
- CPOC’s Green Flag Schools Program for Environmental Leadership is a totally FREE program that supports students (and parents) who want to investigate their schools and identify solutions for making their schools safer and healthier.
Connect with Your School Board
More than 90,000 individuals serve on about 13,809 local school boards across the country – that’s a lot of weight carried by school boards, so making your voice heard by school board members is a huge deal. School boards may seem confusing at first, but really they’re not. School boards consist of members elected by voters in a school district or in some cases by members of the school. School board members serve for a set term and usually have the final say on various school district’s policies, procedures and school budget issues. You may think that school boards are a secret, exclusive club, but that’s not true. With few exceptions, school boards conduct their business via open-to-the-public meetings.
As a parent, most states support your right to attend and speak up at school board meetings and you don’t have to be an expert on school safety to speak up. You can write or call your school board or attend a meeting and offer your own unique insight into a school health problem. Ask your school’s principal, director or superintendent how to get involved if you’re interested in connecting with your school board. For more information about effective school board interactions, read the Parents’ Guide to School Board Advocacy (pdf) in Washington published by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington Foundation. This guide is Washington specific, but it’s also an extreme useful resource for any parent looking to get involved with their school board.
Help Increase School Funding
Not that this will shock anyone, but a majority of schools across the country lack funding. It’s easy to say, “Hey, schools should be greener and healthier!” It’s another issue altogether for a school to actually be able to afford the process. Green cleaners and greener supplies, replacing heating and ventilating systems, removing lead or asbestos and building entirely new healthier schools are all extremely expensive for already budget-stretched schools. Just last month in Texas, state lawmakers cut more than $4 billion from schools, laying off more than 12,000 teachers and staff in the process. School budgets in California were just reduced by about $330 million. Other states aren’t immune, with education experts estimating that districts won’t see budget levels return to pre-recession levels until 2013 (and that’s a best-case scenario). When school staff are out of work and everything from art to music programs are cut to nothing, it’s hard to rationalize green school changes.
Of course you should support legislation and tax laws that allocate money to schools, but school legislation is a bigger issue than what one parent or a group of parents can handle, so you’ll have to be a little more creative. Most schools accept donations and you can usually earmark what the donation will go towards. For example, funding a new heating system. Donations to schools are tax deductible in most cases and a group of parents can pool money for a larger donation. You can also, as noted above, connect with your local school board. The school board usually controls the budget, but the public can advocate for specific allocation of funds. Lastly, you may simply need to commit to spending some time raising funds for your school. Try the resources below.
- A primer on K–12 school funding or dig deeper into school funding.
- Learn how your school can cut costs and save money for green renovations by going greener in the first place.
- Green school fundraising tips, general school fundraising tips and green fundraiser ideas.
- Green building funding opportunities for industry, governmental and non-profit organizations.
Start a Green & Clean Coalition at Your School
Green cleaning products in schools is a small step that can make a huge difference. First of all get to know your school’s policies regarding cleaners and cleaning. As a parent, you do have the right to know which products are being used in your child’s school, so don’t let school administrators shrug you off. Keep asking, and go higher up the chain of command, all the way to the school board if need be. If you learn that the school is using mostly toxic cleaners, suggest they use certified green cleaners instead. If your child’s school is reluctant to make the switch to greener cleaners, the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) fact sheet on the benefits of green cleaning for schools (pdf) may help and for sure getting other parents on your side will help as well. For an easy step-by-step guide about lobbying for green school cleaners, read, talking to schools about green cleaning.
Little Steps Can Make a Difference
Not all parents have the time, money or motivation to take big steps for their child’s school. Luckily, there are some smaller and totally painless steps you can take that will still help improve the health of your school. For example, encourage your school to use EPA’s Healthy School Environments Assessment Tool (HealthySEAT). HealthySEAT is software that can help a school district evaluate and manage key environmental, safety, and health issues. HealthySEAT helps puts knowledge in the hands of your school. Small changes, initiated by you and performed by the school and students can go a long way when it comes to improving the air quality in your child’s school, such as…
- Simply reducing clutter can help eliminate dust. Stacks of papers, supplies and books everywhere are dirt and dust magnets.
- Attempt to get funds allocated that support heavy duty carpet cleaning on a regular basis. The average vacuum does little to clean seriously dirty carpets. Having carpets green cleaned regularly can reduce dust and grime that causes allergies and asthma.
- End of day cleaning is often left to school custodial staff, but parents, teachers and students can schedule cleaning time too, teaching everyone how to maintain a healthier environment and leaving less cleaning to chance.
- Ask your school to phase out hazardous deodorizers (pdf), a main cause of chemical air problems. Instead advocate for open windows for fresh air and natural air fresheners.
- Get the school to switch out some toxic supplies, such as markers, crayons and glue for less offensive supplies. Every little change counts.
Lead Image by datarec via sxc.