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CEA Members, Staff Urge Passage of Legislation to Improve Air Quality in Schools

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Testifying before the legislature’s Public Health Committee, CEA legal counsel Melanie Kolek talks about the explosion of illnesses and workers’ compensation cases linked to sick schools.

Classrooms were over 100 degrees. Crayons were melted, tables warped, magnets curled and fell off the boards, candies melted, floors buckled. Medical concerns when the temperature of the room was unbearable consisted of dizzy spells, headaches, blackouts, concentration issues, and difficulty breathing. Extreme temperatures caused mold to grow throughout the building, including in the HVAC systems. Teachers discovered mold behind ceiling tiles, around pipes, behind the wallpaper, on baseboards, on student shared materials, and around windows. We began to notice that many of us, including students, were having medical concerns that affected our ability to function. We are concerned that the exposure to these elements will have lifelong effects on our overall health. 

Testimony from CEA’s members and legal team before the legislature’s Public Health Committee earlier this week has painted an alarming picture of classroom environments throughout the state. Dirty air vents, water intrusion, rodent droppings, and black mold have given rise to respiratory ailments, rashes, and debilitating illnesses among students and teachers.

Sharing personal accounts of the conditions in their own classrooms, teachers have been urging lawmakers this legislative session to pass House Bill 5431, An Act Concerning Indoor Air Quality in Schools. If enacted into law, it would improve environmental conditions in classrooms across the state and set minimum and maximum classroom temperatures.

“Every child and every teacher in every school deserves to be in a safe environment conducive to teaching and learning,” said Stamford teacher Jessica Reap. “There is no doubt that my health and emotional well-being have suffered from having to work in an unhealthy environment. It is clear that students, teachers, and other school employees have been subjected to mold and poor air quality. There is no telling what long-term effects we may experience.”

Addressing members of the Public Health Committee, Stratford teacher and 2011 Connecticut Teacher of the Year Kristen Record explained how, for years, she assumed she had seasonal allergies. Symptoms flared up every September, coinciding with her return to school. After flooding forced the replacement of her classroom carpet, she realized that the culprit behind her symptoms was her school building.

“We have mold in our carpets and dust in our air vents,” she said. “During the winter, kids and teachers wear coats inside and use portable space heaters to bring classroom temperatures up above 60 degrees. In warm months, we are sometimes sent home early because of the oppressive heat and humidity in our buildings.”

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Stratford Education Association Co-Vice-President Kristen Record describes building conditions that have led to health problems for teachers and students in her district.

Teachers from several other districts echoed Record’s experience. Not surprisingly, there has been a spike in the number of workers’ compensation cases involving mold and other environmental toxins in classrooms across the state.

“When I started at CEA, indoor air quality cases were about five percent of my caseload,” CEA legal counsel Melanie Kolek told legislators. “Now they are 50 percent. Together with student assaults on teachers, these make up 95 percent of my workers’ compensation cases. Please read the heartfelt testimony from teachers who were too sick to come out and speak to you in person.”

Committee members agreed that sick schools are a significant problem in the districts they serve.

“My district has been dealing with this for over 25 years,” said Enfield Representative Tom Arnone.

Representative David Michel characterized the situation described by Kolek and others as “all too familiar.” A co-sponsor of the bill, he represents the city of Stamford, which has experienced multiple school closures, parents demanding solutions, and at least 60 teachers suffering the adverse effects of exposure to mold or other toxins.

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HB 5431 co-sponsor David Michel, state representative for Stamford, comments on teachers’ testimony.

Westhill High School teacher Joe Celcis, who has been unable to teach for nearly two years, is undergoing treatment that may last for years. In written testimony, the Stamford teacher told legislators, “I am unable to fully engage in my daily activities in a normal and fruitful way. I am in constant, varying levels of pain and suffer from intense bouts of brain fog and fatigue that sometimes leave me in bed for days at a time.”

“I have been out of work for three months on medical leave to regain my health,” wrote Fairfield teacher Kris Samuelson. “I have experienced a myriad of symptoms, including shortness of breath (all the time), headaches, fatigue, sinus pressure, joint pain, sleeplessness, voice hoarseness, complete loss of voice, and brain fog, all at the same time.”

Bill co-sponsor and Public Health Committee Vice Chair Saud Anwar, a medical doctor with specializations in treating lung diseases and critical care medicine, occupational, and environmental medicine, said, “Being a teacher is a very dangerous profession. I’m glad CEA is advocating on behalf of your members, because you are also advocating on behalf of children.”

For the past nine months, teachers in classrooms across the state have been recording temperature and humidity levels in their classrooms. CEA has collected a large data sample confirming that sweltering classrooms are indeed a problem in Connecticut schools, with temperatures in some schools reaching as high as 108 degrees. In addition, a November 2019 CEA Survey of Connecticut Teachers found that nearly three-quarters of teachers responding (74%) have experienced extreme hot and cold temperatures in their classrooms, and more than half (53%) say reported environmental conditions not conducive to teaching and learning.

“I hold myself to a high standard,” Record told legislators. “I want to deliver excellent instruction to my students, and they want to learn. They are the real losers in this situation, and we need to do better by them.”

Public Health Committee House Chair Jonathan Steinberg agreed. “Every child deserves a good environment in which to learn.”

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