The Problem with Portables

Running around in the sunshine, inhaling fresh air and soaking up every bit of knowledge in those healthy, young brains – what could be better than being a kid? It turns out, a lot of things could be better than being a kid attending public school in America.

The unfortunate reality for many children today is sitting for hours on end in cramped, old desk-and-chair apparatuses, breathing in dust and stale air, and straining eyes against harsh, artificial lighting while trying to retain facts, ideas and entire subject matters in these conditions. Constructing temporary, portable classrooms was the “Band-Aid” fix for an American population boom beginning in the 1950s that sent more children to school than what the existing structures could handle. Many of these portables did not end up temporary at all, though – some are more than 40 years old, well past their life expectancies, and are wreaking havoc on the health, wellness and learning abilities of children today.

Students in America miss approximately 14 million school days per year because of asthma, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And, according to the National Action Plan for Greening America’s Schools, a publication outlining a plan for implementing green-school initiatives, improving the indoor air quality through the exclusion of toxic materials and increased ventilation can improve the health of students, resulting in decreased absenteeism. Controlling exposure to indoor environmental factors, such as carbon monoxide, dust and pollen, could prevent more than 65 percent of asthma cases among children in elementary school, according to the report, which sites the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

Poor ventilation, mold and other hazards cause an alarming number of temporary classrooms to be reported as substandard or even dangerous. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics reports that in up to 18 percent of schools with portable buildings, factors such as acoustics, size/configuration of rooms, and physical condition of ceilings, floors, walls, windows, and doors was reported to be a moderate or major interference with instruction and learning. Portable buildings also had more severe impacts on health issues associated with ventilation and indoor air quality.

And that still doesn’t cover all the problems. Many portable classrooms have insufficient daylighting – or no windows whatsoever – which has a direct effect on students’ ability to stay focused and comprehend new material.

According to a Heschong Mahone Group study, students with the most daylight in their classrooms performed 20 percent faster on math tests and 26 percent faster on reading tests than students with less daylighting. This is because unnatural illumination – especially when subjected to hours of it, day after day – can affect brain chemistry, leading to fatigue, debility and even clinical depression. When deprived of natural light, our inner clocks can also get confused, which contributes to sleep disorders. And to top it all off, artificial lighting costs schools more money and the environment more precious energy.

In preparing children for infinite opportunities in an ever-increasing global society, it’s critical we give them the best foundation possible. Public education is one of the most efficient ways to do this, but when health and learning is affected by the very buildings in which these learning activities take place, it’s time for a change. To construct healthy, sustainable, all-around-green environments and teach our students in these facilities will not only improve their health and well-being, but it will act as a teacher on its own – nontoxic substances, the benefits and uses of sunlight, building with recycled materials … the opportunities to learn from sustainable classrooms are endless.

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