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How deteriorating schools fuel the inequality crisis amid COVID-19

Yvette Alston-Johnson was seething when she got the news. Children in Paterson, New Jersey, would not be allowed to go to school in-person this fall, while many of their peers in predominantly white and affluent suburbs would return.

Alston-Johnson attended Paterson public schools, as did her five children, and she has watched the buildings fall steadily into disrepair over the years. She is now the primary caregiver for her grandson Rayahn, who is in eighth grade at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Educational Complex, where close to 90 percent of students are Black or Latino.

“I feel like we get the short end of the stick,” said Alston-Johnson, who is 54. “We’re always last in line when it comes to our schools and money.”

“It’s cold in those buildings in the winter and then the A.C. doesn’t work in the summer; there’s mice running around,” she added. “If they did more upkeep on the buildings, the teachers would have been able to teach them in the buildings.”

Paterson, which serves mostly low-income families, has struggled to find the money to repair its buildings. Now, like districts across the country, it is seeing the spread of the coronavirus expose a crisis of crumbling and dilapidated school buildings brought on by decades of underfunding and neglect. The consequences are especially dire for Black and Latino children and for low-income children of all races. Schools serving these students were much more likely to remain closed this fall, in part because old buildings were deemed unsafe for both children and teachers during the pandemic. The fallout has left families scrambling for child care and students struggling to keep up with remote learning.

Due to the lack of funding, maintenance staff continue to patch — rather than replace — the leaky roofs at Williams-Sullivan Middle School in Durant, Mississippi. Photo by Rory Doyle for The Hechinger Report

Nationally, school closures forced 41 percent of districts with a high concentration of students living in poverty into offering remote-only instruction this fall, while only 24 percent of districts with a low concentration of students living in poverty kept their doors closed to in-person instruction, according to a report by the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

READ MORE: Districts in Debt

States have no reason to be surprised by the sharp divide in children’s access to their schools. More than 40 percent of school districts need to update or replace the ventilation systems in at least half of their schools, according to a report by the Government Accounting Office. Moreover, low-poverty districts spent about $1 billion more on school construction than high-poverty districts in 2016, which comes to 41 percent more per student.

Across the United States, funding for education is largely a local endeavor. Many districts with bustling main streets and abundant resources can erect gleaming modern facilities, while districts with boarded-up storefronts and with little property wealth have little to nothing set aside to patch up crumbling infrastructure. From classrooms without air conditioning in Baltimore to deteriorating facilities in the Mississippi Delta, school infrastructure often follows the pattern of the nation’s most entrenched inequalities, intertwining closely with race and wealth.

“There was evidence about the inequalities in school facilities before COVID,” said Diana Quintero, a senior research analyst with the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. Most money for improvements is raised locally, she said, “so schools serving disadvantaged students get less funding to make improvements.”

“Now we are just seeing more of those inequalities that we know existed before,” Quintero said.

Across the U.S., funding for K-12 facilities remains “inherently and persistently inequitable,” according to a 2016 report. The report, a collaboration between nonprofits the 21st Century School Fund, the U.S. Green Building Council and the National Council on School Facilities, found the federal government offers “almost nothing” to address the inequities in school construction. A dozen states similarly provide no direct support to help local school districts maintain their facilities or build new ones.

This fall, New Jersey left the decision of whether to offer in-person classes or remain remote to individual districts, and the results fell sharply along racial lines. As of early October, six out of 10 students in schools that began the year with remote-only classes were Black or Latino, while just three of 10 were white.

Spending levels also tracked with which children had to stay home. The state’s school funding formula sets a dollar amount each district needs to provide “an adequate education.” The majority of districts that the state says are underfunded by more than $5,000 per student were offering no in-person learning, according to analysis by Mark Weber at New Jersey Policy Perspective.

“Even if you brought those districts up to adequate funding for one year, the facilities can’t be fixed in that year because of years, sometimes decades of neglect,” Weber said.

Alston-Johnson, sitting in her home in Paterson, said it didn’t surprise her to learn that more of the wealthier districts are offering in-person learning.

“There’s who’s got money and there’s segregation,” she said. “The biggest loss is that people in upper-income neighborhoods are ahead, more ahead now. It’s just going to widen the gap.”

In South Carolina, maintenance workers in Dillon School District Four try to mask water-damage by gluing plywood to classroom walls. Five generations of children have passed through the doors of the district’s oldest campus, East Elementary, constructed in 1926. If taxes aren’t raised for a new grade school, it’s possible a sixth generation of learners will attend the school too.

In communities like Dillon County, raising sales or property taxes might be too much to ask. Nearly 34 percent of residents live in poverty. The county was once known for booming textile and tobacco industries that have long since declined. Now, some of the more promising manufacturing work is more than 100 miles away, and median household income is just under $30,000.

Superintendent Ray Rogers is reluctant to ask families who struggle to make ends meet to pay more taxes on clothes and other goods to fix ailing school facilities. But short of receiving a windfall of state or federal aid, he may not have a choice.

Rogers said he is especially frustrated when he sees public schools in the affluent enclaves of the state that rival college facilities.

“We don’t have revenue for something like that,” he said. He doesn’t begrudge districts with state-of-the-art buildings, he said, “I just wish we could do better.”

Dillon Four might be one of the furthest behind. The district, where almost three-fourths of students are of color and 90 percent live below the poverty level, is projected to receive less local funding per student than any other non-charter district in the state this year. The figure is an indicator of how the district struggles to cover the basics. And when it comes to a 94-year-old elementary school, ingenuity and dedication can only go so far.

The last time a bond referendum passed was in 2007. It was an exception: Since 2000, 29 school bonds have failed in South Carolina. Even when voters agree to tax hikes, disparities among local economies mean their efforts may not be enough to cover the cost of upgrading school buildings.

“As long as you have districts with low property values that don’t have much industry located in that area, clearly, they’re always going to be playing catch up,” said South Carolina state Rep. Russell Ott, a Democrat.

For decades, families across the country with the lowest incomes have sent their children into buildings where bathrooms are in disrepair and ventilation is poor. For these children, going to school was a precarious endeavor, even before the pandemic. They were more likely to be in poorly ventilated classrooms, swelter in extreme heat and shiver in the cold. Toxin exposure in aging structures put their health at risk.

A structural crack at the Williams-Sullivan Middle School in Durant, Mississippi, continues to grow. Photo by Rory Doyle for The Hechinger Report

Now, families wonder how they can trust that their children will be kept safe in these same conditions as a deadly virus rages unchecked.

This fall, Dillon Four reopened with a hybrid teaching model: Students are split into groups and alternate the days they come to campus with days they stay home to complete lessons on their own. Despite this alternative, 60 percent of the district’s families opted to keep their children fully online.

Short of an infusion of funding and time for building upgrades, Rogers, the superintendent, said allowing uncomfortable parents to keep their children to stay at home was the best the district could offer. “We didn’t try to force anyone to come in,” he said.

In classrooms where windows work, teachers try to follow CDC guidance to open windows and circulate fresh air. But years of wear has made doing so a challenge.

“You push them up — you might not get them down,” Rogers said.

In early March, just a week before most states shuttered their schools to slow the spread of coronavirus, Rebecca Garcia boarded a plane to Washington, D.C.

Garcia, the president of the Nevada PTA, spent two days on Capitol Hill meeting with lawmakers to lobby for more spending on K-12 infrastructure, as proposed in the federal Rebuild America’s Schools Act. The legislation, which has remained on the House floor since last year, would prioritize $100 billion for high-poverty schools to improve the health and safety of their facilities.

Garcia said the pandemic has only hastened the need for that money.

“People don’t realize how many of the issues related to reopening schools go back to decades of financial management choices made in public education,” Garcia said. “Whether it’s school maintenance and repairing A.C. filters, but also class sizes and portables … Even if we could space everyone out, where are they going to safely teach? We have not invested in the infrastructure.”

Back in Las Vegas, where Garcia’s children go to school, leaders have faced different problems than their peers in smaller, more rural places, but they’re no less daunting.

Since the 1980s, Clark County, which encompasses Las Vegas, swelled from the nation’s 18th-largest school district to the fifth-largest. The district had to pour most of its capital budget into building schools to house the surge of students. Older schools, meanwhile, languished in the desert heat.

Now, the district estimates it needs to spend at least $5.4 billion to fix the roofs, replace HVAC systems and keep its aging campuses up and running. The school board in 2015 approved a 10-year plan to issue about $4 billion in new debt for all facility needs — but only about $1 billion of that will go toward renovating or updating schools. (The other $3 billion will pay for building new schools, adding space on overcrowded campuses and entirely replacing older facilities.)

About 3 in 4 students in Clark County qualify for subsidized meals at school, and a similar share identify as children of color. With the exception of students at a few rural schools, none will return to physical classes until January, at the earliest.

READ MORE: When schools reopen, we may not have enough teachers

Jeff Wagner, the district’s chief of facilities, acknowledged that deferred maintenance — specifically, concerns about air quality — played a part in the district’s decision to delay its reopening. “It certainly was a consideration,” Wagner said. Still, he added, “the thing that keeps me up most at night are those older facilities.”

Since March, the district has changed the air filters in every building and increased the intake of outdoor air into classrooms. But at the top of Wagner’s wish list is to have the money — and time — to install working sinks at every school to encourage hand-washing during the pandemic.

Plumbing regularly fails at Von Tobel Middle School, a high-poverty campus that the district found needs nearly $30 million in renovations. The school relies on an “excessive” number of portable classrooms to absorb over-enrollment, and HVAC issues are a recurring problem.

Still, parent Daisy Larez hoped her two sons can return to the school in person soon.

“They’re so tired of staying home and looking at computers,” Larez said. One of her sons told her, “This is stupid. This isn’t teaching us anything. This is just giving us busy work.”

Larez attended Von Tobel herself and recalled its shoddy conditions 20 years ago. But she worried her children’s academics were slipping with each day spent away from campus.

“They’re not actually paying attention to what the teachers are saying” online, Larez said. “My boys are straight-A students. I don’t feel like they’re learning anything new.”

In June, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives reintroduced and passed a version of the Rebuild America’s Schools Act as part of a larger $1.5 trillion package, which has stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. The money, Garcia said, would be critical in Nevada — one of the dozen states that currently provide no money for school facilities.

“Every dollar makes such a huge difference,” she said.

Without federal leadership, it’s unclear how and even whether individual states can make safer schools a priority as many state budgets buckle under the ongoing recession and ever-growing costs of a public health emergency.

In Colorado, the state has a matching program for costly construction and renovation projects. Through it, the Colorado Springs School District 11 received about $1 million to replace the water lines at one high school, but still has a backlog of about $700 million in maintenance needs. Nine out of 52 schools there have no central air system — a critical component for increasing the turnover of fresh air so necessary during an airborne pandemic — and virtually no schools have new enough equipment to meet federally recommended levels for air filtration, said Glenn Gustafson, deputy superintendent and chief financial officer in Colorado Springs.

“We had challenges with our HVAC systems long before the pandemic, and so (the coronavirus) just put the spotlight on it,” Gustafson said.

Ground water flooding and a failing steam heat boiler are just a few of the many challenges USD 377 custodian Dan Coder faces in Effingham, Kansas. Photo by Dave Kaup

The district only sets aside $1 million each year to keep up its aging facilities, Gustafson said. Between July and September, to keep students safe from COVID-19, the district spent about $400,000 of that reserve on ventilation issues alone.

In Colorado Springs, about half of students identify as children of color, and a similar share come from low-income households. High schoolers didn’t return to campus until October — more than a month after their peers in neighboring Cheyenne Mountain School District 12, where 69 percent of students are white and the median household income is nearly twice that of Colorado Springs.

“Generally speaking, school districts are on their own,” Gustafson said.

In Alabama, lawmakers approved a one-time infusion for school construction projects and repairs this summer. Montgomery Schools, a 29,500-student district that averages anywhere from 300 to 500 maintenance requests per week, will receive $32 million in funding for facility projects.

It’s a help. But the district has more $200 million in deferred maintenance, including replacing floors, installing new roofs, and addressing other capital needs in buildings constructed before the Great Depression.

Director of operations Chad Anderson said the task is overwhelming. For years, Montgomery residents paid the minimum property tax rate — about $100 per year on a $100,000 home. “A $3 million budget doesn’t help us very much, when you have 60-plus buildings,” Anderson said.

In November, voters agreed to double the district’s property tax rate. The increase will bring the district closer to the average property rate in the state, but the tax hike won’t start until 2023.

California is perhaps the only state investing a large pot of money to help struggling districts address air quality in schools. Roughly 85 percent of classrooms in the Golden State lack proper ventilation, researchers at University of California Davis found late last year. Assembly Bill 841, which passed in September, will provide upwards of $600 million specifically to upgrade HVAC systems in public schools, prioritizing those in underserved communities.

“I have yet to see another state that has been doing this,” said Jeff Vincent, a director and cofounder of the Center for Cities and Schools at the University of California Berkeley.

“The condition in too many schools was bad and doing harm prior to the pandemic,” he added. “The pandemic has shined a spotlight on that … These problems don’t go away when a vaccine comes.”

This story about school buildings was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.