Sandy Underscores Maintenance, Utility Cost Control, Schools as Shelters, and Environmental Education

While U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools (ED-GRS) honorees are outstanding examples of healthy, safe and efficient school facilities and outdoor environments, ensuring that all schools meet basic standards of health, safety, efficiency, and modernization, so that students and staff can achieve to their full potential, is our goal. The impact of Hurricane Sandy on schools underscores the importance of facilities’ maintenance and environmental health, controlling school utility costs, and schools as emergency shelters. It also highlights the need for effective environmental education.

We know that capital projects and maintenance expenditures are often scaled back when budgets are tight. The result is an accumulation of deferred maintenance, which leads to higher school operational costs and more equipment malfunctions. When maintenance is deferred in school buildings, these facilities are more vulnerable to damage from natural events. For example, a roof with old flashing, is more likely to come loose and tear off in high winds; masonry in need of repointing is at greater risk for collapse; and trees that have not been maintained are more subject to falling and damaging nearby structures.

As many of our ED-GRS honorees have discovered, by redirecting a portion of utility savings, they can undertake health and safety promoting maintenance and infrastructure improvements.  These honorees stay on top of repairs by controlling their utility costs with behavioral changes and retrofits to existing buildings. They also adhere to strict contaminant controls and other indoor environmental health standards. Because of their regular upkeep and healthy environment efforts, there are potentially fewer dangers, such as lead, chemicals, and asbestos that might contaminate debris or water, at all schools that follow Green Ribbon practices and make use of available resources, when storms hit.

The storm also reminds us of public schools’ role in their communities as vital emergency shelters and polling stations. During Sandy, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island schools served as community evacuation centers, including 2012 ED-GRS honoree, Alder Avenue Middle School, in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., which served as an evacuation center.

Importantly, Alder Avenue and fellow ED-Green Ribbon Schools implement environmental education programs that teach students about the dynamic relationships among human, ecological, energetic, economic and social systems. This includes how human activity can cause meteorological changes on our planet. Alder Avenue takes students out of the traditional classroom setting and introduces them to tangible outdoor learning excursions. Their Catawba Project program is packed with differentiated instruction that incorporates core content standards and appeals to all students. It also is infused with character-building service-learning initiatives designed to partner middle school students with township leaders, environmentalists, parents, and community members to work together to help solve real environmental problems.

A wealth of resources is available to help inform a safe and healthy post-hurricane cleanup in our schools and communities, among them FEMA repair grants and food assistance from the USDA. In addition, there are countless tools for getting utility costs under control and teaching environmental education on the ED-GRS resources page.  Sign up for the ED-GRS newsletter or find us on Facebook.