Eco Back to School: Green Schools, Green Classrooms

We insure our children’s safety in a thousand different ways every day.  Car seats.  Bicycle helmets.  Mosquito repellent and sunscreen.  Safety locks.  Flu shots.  Teaching them “stranger danger” and how to avoid being bullied on the playground.  Playgrounds with rubber mats and inches of mulch to pad falling children and prevent injuries.  Nationwide recalls on Happy Meal toys posing a choking hazard.

Despite all these measures to keep children safe, most of us think nothing of sending our children to toxic school buildings to spend 7 hours a day, 180 days of a year, for 12-13 years of their lives.

What makes a school a healthy learning environment for millions of  children attending them and the  teachers and support staff working in them?

“Green schools ” need to take things further than providing recycle bins in every classroom and installing energy-efficient light bulbs.  Most school buildings are industrial boxes with few windows and even fewer that open.  Older buildings, while not full of asbestos any longer, often have poor ventilation and high levels of pollutants.  Environmentally healthy schools provide a safe infrastructure and an environment that combine to produce healthy and safe students.


Green Schools, or  Environmentally Healthy Schools, by definition, should include:

*Daylight.  Simply having windows in classrooms alters mood and behavior and reduces electrical use, which saves money and energy.

* Transportation.  Efficient, safe, and emission free are good guidelines.  Safe walking paths are ideal since they leave the least environmental impact (emission free!) and give children a chance to exercise and enjoy fresh air.  Enviro Girl lives in a rural district and she simply asked her school’s principal to have the buses turn off their engines while waiting for students at the end of the day.  By turning off their diesel engines, the air is cleaner, there is less noise pollution and the bus company saves money on fuel.  Encouraging car pooling is another way to reduce energy consumption.

* Good air quality.  Adequate ventilation and reduced environmental toxins mean healthier students.  Simply being able to open windows improves circulation.  This can also help reduce mold.

* Temperature control.  A well-constructed building won’t have drafty classrooms or overheated classrooms.  Radiant heat is one excellent way to efficiently heat large buildings because it maintains even temperatures and uses less fuel.  If your school district is building a new school, chime in on the heating/cool system to maximize your taxpayers’ investment.  Likewise, if your school buildings have extreme temperature fluctuations, advocate for an energy audit to discover if there are more efficient ways to heat/cool the school.

*  Water use.  Safe drinking water should be available at water fountains or spigots.  Low flow toilets and faucets reduce waste and use.  The greenest schools encourage students to bring their own water bottles and refuse to sell bottled water and soft drinks out of vending machines during the school day.

* Access to nature.  Fresh air, exercise, playground areas, “green spaces” for learning make children physically healthier and more able to think and learn.  Trees provide wind, dust and noise barriers while creating shade.  Gardens and native plantings can educate students in a range of topics, including nutrition and biology.

* Healthy food.  The Eco Women could write a week’s worth of posts on this issue, but chemical free, unprocessed, locally produced, nutritious food should be available for students.  Many schools have instituted “healthy snack” policies and banned vending and soda machines.  This is a good start.  The bigger issue is the food served on those cafeteria trays.  Many school cafeterias serve high-salt, high-sugar, high-fat foods like chicken nuggets and canned vegetables.  Enviro Girl was glad her children’s school began contracting with local farmers to make fresh produce available.  It’s a small step in the right direction, even though they have miles to go to make hot lunch healthy and palatable.  Most schools have hired out the cafeteria to a large corporation (like Aramark).  Aramark does provide healthy meal options to customers demanding them.  It’s a small thing to rally parents to put fresh fruit and vegetables on those cafeteria trays.

* No bad chemicals.  Chemicals are used all over school buildings–waste management, pest management, cleaning supplies, mold control, laboratory waste management.  Environmentally healthy schools adopt integrated pest management (IPM) and use nontoxic cleaning supplies.

* Curriculum.  Lessons in all subject areas should include environmental knowledge and awareness of environmental issues.  From Biology to Social Studies, Language Arts to Health, students should learn how their behavior and actions affect the world around them and how nature and people are deeply connected.  For teachers, Planet Pals and The Sierra Club are great resources.

All of these elements combine to make our students healthier and improve their ability to learn.  These factors also combine to make public education cost-effective by reducing consumption.  According to Building Green Schools, the cost benefits include: less electrical use, lowered emissions, and reduced illness.  Whether lobbying for nontoxic, biodegradable cleaning supplies, new ventilation systems, or improved lunch programs, there are many ways parents can advocate for a healthier school environment.  The majority of our nation’s schools don’t meet the healthiest, greenest standard.  These issues encompass more than the physical structure of a school.

Is your children’s school green?  Which of these areas might your school improve?

By coordinating parent support for these issues and lobbying your school board, your school’s administrators and your school’s PTA/PTO, you can make your school greener and healthier for everyone learning and working there.  By tackling one issue, one project, one area at a time, this challenge is less daunting and the payoff is immediate.    It’s about a cleaner planet AND our children’s safety.

All images are from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Green School Poster Program.

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