Healthy schools lead to healthy communities

Beth Kontos and Elena Weissmann


Public schools in Massachusetts are deeply important to our communities. Every day, thousands of educators across the state devote their careers to supporting students in the classroom.

But when it comes to the physical buildings that our schools operate in, we are failing to adequately support the health and safety of our students and their communities.

The City of Lynn knows this well. Lynn’s public school teachers are responsible for fostering a supportive and educational environment to prepare Lynn’s youngest community members for a bright future. Despite record overcrowding in the schools, they excel at this often thankless task.

But while the city’s public school buildings are also tasked with the mandate to foster a supportive environment, they are no longer up to the challenge. Some are nearly 150 years old, with many built before World War II.

With hotter temperatures and once-in-a-generation storms becoming regular occurrences thanks to climate change, Lynn’s school buildings — like those in many communities across the state — are struggling to sustain the environment that our students need to learn and thrive.

There is no doubt that the state’s public school buildings, in communities like Lynn in particular, need a major upgrade.

This year, the Massachusetts Legislature has an opportunity to ensure we do these upgrades the right way — to advance a just and sustainable future for the next generation.

An Act Relative to Healthy and Sustainable Schools, filed by Rep. Marjorie Decker and Sen. Paul Feeney, would establish a statewide goal to decarbonize public schools, public universities, and community colleges by mandating and facilitating energy audits, efficiency upgrades, and solar power, with priority for environmental justice communities like Lynn.

The act would bring much-needed upgrades to our hardest-hit communities and create good union jobs along the way.

As Mayor Jared Nicholson shared with us, “The City of Lynn is committed to improving our school building infrastructure that sustains an equitable learning environment that is also climate resilient.” He knows that “this legislation will be a key investment in ensuring our students and educators have the kind of learning spaces they deserve and can thrive in.”

Teachers also know firsthand how important this bill is.

Sheila O’Neil, president of the Lynn Teachers Union, told us that “poor indoor air quality negatively impacts students’ health and academic performance. We need to invest in sustainable building practices and effective ventilation systems to ensure that our schools provide a safe and healthy space for our students to learn and thrive.”

She is confident that “the Healthy and Sustainable Schools Act, together with Lynn Sen. Brendan Crighton’s school construction bill (SB251), will allow us to dedicate equitable funding to our schools and uphold education as a fundamental human right, creating a level playing field for all students, regardless of their socioeconomic or geographic backgrounds.”

School building upgrades are critical for securing a supportive learning environment for students, who currently suffer through heat waves and cold snaps without reliable temperature control. Upgrades will also save money and reduce pollution.

Even when school is not in session, these upgrades will help turn schools into community resilience centers when storms knock out power to surrounding communities. We see great examples of schools as resilience hubs in action in other states and cities — why not Massachusetts?

The act’s impact on Lynn’s economy is essential as well. Massachusetts is home to 350 public school districts and thousands of schools. Conducting an energy audit of each institution and even taking the initial steps towards efficiency and renewable upgrades will generate numerous workforce opportunities.

The act’s requirements for prevailing wage and responsible contracting practices will create good union jobs and prioritize hiring among environmental justice communities. By focusing on pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs, the act would ensure that these opportunities are generating family-sustaining careers, not just one-time jobs.

Beyond the workforce, renewable and efficiency upgrades generate critical energy cost savings for our educational institutions — especially as prices fluctuate to dramatic highs, as they did this winter. Schools can use these energy savings to deliver educational services directly to students.

We estimate that this bill would reduce emissions from our K-12 public schools by 880,000 metric tons. The improved health outcomes and positive impact on our climate from these efforts cannot be understated, especially in an environmental justice community like Lynn that experiences disproportionately high levels of pollutant-borne illnesses like asthma.

With the Massachusetts Legislature in full swing, Lynn residents have the opportunity to make their voices heard. Contact your legislators and tell them you support the Healthy and Sustainable Schools Act, HD.3802 / SD.2256. Our students and communities depend on it.


Beth Kontos is the president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts and a resident of Lynn. Elena Weissmann is the Northeast regional director at Vote Solar, a national clean energy nonprofit. She is a resident of Somerville.

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