Gotham Gazette

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Resilient Public Schools are Key to Our Children’s and Our City’s Future

The future of schools in NYC (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Two years after lockdown, we’re entering a new phase of the pandemic. Mask and vaccine mandates have been rolled back across the state, and we’re eager to return to some kind of ‘normal.’ We have a new mayor and a new City Council, being tested for the first time. And we’re at a crossroads: what lessons have we learned? How can we ensure that our city is resilient, not just in the face of another health crisis or a new variant, but universally?

I’m a working mom, and I think a lot about the effect these two years have had on my eight-year-old at such a formative time. Schools were hit hard by the pandemic, with shutdowns disrupting the lives of countless students, families, teachers, principals, and others. When Mayor Adams announced that schools would reopen in January after winter break and amid the Omicron wave, I was hesitant, as I’m sure many other parents were. But I recognized the importance of in-person learning. My partner and I took all of the precautions we could to ensure our child’s health and safety at school.

In February, I faced a moment every parent dreads—my child tested positive for COVID-19 after an exposure in their 28-person classroom. We were fortunate that they were vaccinated and only had a mild case, but at this moment of recovery and renewal, we must do more to safeguard our public school students in New York City.

We also must do more to safeguard their future. It can be difficult to see beyond our current moment, trying to safely emerge from this health crisis. But I also want my child to grow up happy and healthy in New York City, and have the option to live a long life here, perhaps raise children of their own someday.

The 2022 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released last month, makes it clear that the progression of climate change is much worse than we thought. Our window to change course is closing fast. The pandemic also highlighted the connection between climate change and public health, with clinical research linking high COVID-19 death rates to long-term exposure to climate degradation, concentrated in low-income and environmental justice communities—primarily communities of color. This is an urgent moment to determine our children’s future.

One of the lessons we’ve learned in the past two years is that resiliency means strong infrastructure. In New York, that starts with our public buildings. New York City public schools are some of the biggest public climate polluters and account for one-quarter of all city-owned buildings. We also know that proper ventilation is one of the most important ways to minimize the spread of COVID-19. And beyond covid, poor air quality not only impacts student and staff health, but it can also undermine learning by negatively affecting student attendance, comfort, and performance.

The Climate Works for All coalition has developed a plan for Green, Healthy Schools. The solution is retrofitting our public schools, starting with upgrading HVAC systems while we are still fighting this pandemic. Now is the time to take institutional measures to prevent the spread of airborne diseases and protect our kids, today and in the future. We can tackle the multiple crises our city faces by retrofitting school buildings, while also reducing emissions, enhancing air quality, creating green career jobs, and fostering resilient communities across our city.

As a city, we’ve already committed to reduce emissions from New York City’s biggest buildings—40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050—through Local Law 97, passed in 2019. This work needs to happen, and public buildings can set an example. Why not start with public schools? Climate is a personal issue, and it won’t wait for us. This is why I do this work—to build a more sustainable New York for my family and our community.

Retrofitting K-12 schools and installing solar systems will cut energy use by 50%, enhance daily life and health in public schools, and support student performance, engagement, and classroom behavior. It will also allow the city to address long-term public health disparities in Black and brown communities—the same communities ravaged by the pandemic. In Mayor Adams’ economic recovery blueprint, he pledged to invest equitably in neighborhood infrastructure, including schools. This is a great place to start. But to do it properly, there must be a baseline of funding year to year.

New York City must take on the urgency of this moment by ensuring that our public funding goes to public infrastructure. Climate Works for All proposes an annual investment of at least $1.6 billion for the next eight years, which would ensure the health and safety of our school children and make good on the promise to retrofit our buildings while creating good jobs.

I know that being in school is good for my child’s mental health, but we must take care of our kids’ long-term physical health too. Mayor Adams can demonstrate true leadership in his first term by prioritizing upgrading HVAC systems in public schools, starting with those in environmental justice communities. Investing in resiliency now will shape the city’s recovery, give us long-term protection from new variants or whatever comes next, and set an example for our climate future and for our kids. 

Maritza Silva-Farrell is Executive Director of ALIGN NY, a climate and labor advocacy organization and a leader of the Climate Works for All coalition.
On Twitter @MaritzaSf & @ALIGNny.

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