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Plan to set air standards in Virginia schools scuttled over funding concerns

A portrait of Bolling
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Del. Destiny LeVere Bolling, D-Henrico, who introduced a bill that establishes a minimum air quality standards for Virginia public schools, is photographed in her office on Thursday, February 8, 2024 at The General Assembly Building in Richmond, Virginia.

Currently in the commonwealth, no benchmarks exist.

Over half of Virginia’s public school buildings are more than 50 years old. And along with aging facilities comes aging equipment that needs more attention, Democratic Del. Destiny LeVere Bolling said.

Bolling introduced legislation this year to establish minimum air quality standards for Virginia public schools — and to mandate a process to ensure all necessary repairs, leaks and mold remediation are taken care of in a timely manner.

“We need to make sure that our kids, our personnel, support staff in our schools are breathing good quality air, so they're not getting sick,” Bolling said.

Her bill would have required school districts to have a point person in charge of creating and following a maintenance schedule for HVAC system updates and repairs. Schools having backlogged repairs is a problem nationally; a 2020 report from the U.S. Governmental Accountability Office estimated that 41% of districts in the country needed to update or replace HVAC systems in at least half of their schools.

Bolling’s bill also would have required districts to address water intrusion and leaks within 48 hours to prevent mold accumulation. Mold is a known trigger and exacerbator of asthma, which historically has disproportionately impacted Black students.

“We often use the euphemism ‘deferred maintenance’ to refer to problems that should be addressed immediately, that can have public health impacts,” said Emily Yen, a former lobbyist for the Virginia Education Association.

Yen helped draft the legislation, which she said is modeled after a New Jersey law focused on air quality standards that apply to all public facilities. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a handful of states have laws about school air quality, and several states have considered the issue in recent years.

Virginia was among four states to propose legislation related to the issue this year.

The draft legislation also would have created a complaint process through the Virginia Department of Education for when districts don’t follow through on necessary fixes. It would have also required school districts to immediately investigate internal complaints of signs or symptoms that may be associated with sick building syndrome — when building occupants feel sick while on-site, but often feel better when they leave.

Some Richmond educators have been speaking out about their own health concerns that they believe can be attributed to poor air quality and mold in schools. The Richmond Education Association asked Richmond Public Schools to approve minimum air quality standards, but they haven’t been adopted.

Ryan Burgess worked at Thomas C. Boushall Middle School last year, but eventually quit her job as a site coordinator for Communities in Schools after symptoms that she believed were triggered by the school environment didn’t subside. She has mold allergies and said after about a week and a half at the school, she started to feel congested, developed a cough and also got regular headaches. Eventually, she filed a complaint with the Virginia Department of Labor.

“I really just felt miserable because I was sick all the time,” Burgess said. “It just didn't seem worth it at the time to continue in a job where I was going to be sick.”

Bolling’s bill was ultimately met with funding concerns from lawmakers and groups like the Virginia School Board Association, though the lawmaker plans to bring the legislation back again next year.

JT Kessler, a lobbyist for school boards association, said during a legislative hearing that implementing the proposal locally “could be very costly,” though he wasn’t opposed to the bill.

He added that “we want our air quality to be good in our schools, but we need modern schools and the General Assembly to fund school construction so that we can do that.”

Updated: February 16, 2024 at 5:07 PM EST
Added contextual information about similar legislative proposals in states other than Virginia.
Megan Pauly reports on early childhood and higher education news in Virginia
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