I work in an office in a New York City public school. Our students come from low-income, minority homes, and the student body suffers from a high incidence of asthma. Every day I sit at my desk and see mouse droppings on surfaces that were clean when I left the night before. Dead and living cockroaches are fixtures in our classrooms and hallways.
Parents in middle-class, mostly-white schools have been agitating for years now about eliminating children’s exposure to peanuts to curb the risk of dangerous anaphylactic episodes. Some schools have gone peanut-free. No such initiative has been taken to get rid of persistent vermin and pest problems in our urban schools. In fact, our school just fired three maintenance workers due to budget cuts.
Pests in older, badly maintained apartment buildings surely contribute to the high incidence of asthma in our student body, but some of our students spend more time in our building than they do in their homes. I have two questions: What can I do to make my school cleaner and safer? What can be done systemically to make all of our schools cleaner and safer?
First of all, thank you for your service to New York City children. For years I have tried to do my part for kids in that socio-economic group by going to schools and working directly with them, as part of Project ERASE, a program I founded.
You have your finger on the problem in talking about the difference between food allergies and asthma. Food allergy parents see a daily threat to their own kids and understandably raise hell, although the best solutions in my opinion lie with the students and their families, not with the institution. Asthma is a chronic condition that afflicts large numbers of kids of all classes, but disproportionately poorer ones, and it is much more influenced by environmental conditions than food allergies are.
We have found in our work at the schools, and this is backed by all the research, that relatively simple changes, such as complying with prescriptions and better home cleaning, can reduce serious asthma attacks by 75% or more.
What you are describing is very troubling for many reasons. As you point out, students spend 7 or more hours a day in buildings where they are regularly exposed to allergens they can get rid of at home with conscientious housekeeping.
The possibilities for collective action to rid schools of pests would likely produce good results for large numbers of students. However, their beleaguered parents are not well organized. The squeaky wheel gets the grease—again.
If budget cuts are making the schools dirtier, this will compound problems for your school’s administration as well as in the classroom. For example, each day lost at school costs your school money from New York State, so it will exacerbate your principal’s budget problems.
In the classroom, students whose allergies and asthma are uncontrolled not only suffer academically, they tend to distract other students from their learning. They suffer throughout their lives with lower quality of life and lower achievement. This is a huge social cost.
What can you do?
Very hard question. An NYC principal of our acquaintance says there are no hard standards in the system. From what she says, custodians seem to enjoy far more discretion over how they do their jobs and how hard they work than teachers do in their classrooms.
I am hard pressed in this economic environment to encourage you and your colleagues to do more than you already do. You might ask for an inspection of food service and garbage disposal.
It might be worth your while to raise the issue with your administration and try to figure out how many seriously allergic and asthmatic children are enrolled, and what the effect of these conditions is on their health and attendance. If it is a perceptible problem, I am sure we can arrange to have someone come and discuss it with teachers, staff, parents, and even students about the toll this pernicious problem takes. Maybe you can find a cause that all of you can rally around. Keep up the good work you are doing.