By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
F-SUTA President Melanie Driver and CTA Board member Don Bridge confer during a policy briefing about asthma in California schools.
Melanie Driver is president of the Fairfield-Suisun Teachers Association. She is also asthmatic and admits there are days in her classroom when she isn’t sure whether she should reach for her inhaler or head for the emergency room. When an asthma attack happens to her — or her students — it can result in missed school days, fatigue and poor morale.
Driver offered her perspective about asthma health risks posed by environmental triggers in schools at the state Capitol on Feb. 28 in a policy briefing titled “The Burden of Asthma on California’s Schools.” Sponsored by CTA’s Teachers for Healthy Kids: Healthy Air, Healthy Kids project, the event is part of a continuing effort to raise awareness about what teachers and schools can do to prevent asthma and asthma triggers and maintain indoor air quality in schools. Also in attendance were members of the California School Boards Association, the California School Employees Association, the Regional Asthma Management and Prevention Program, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Asthma is a chronic, lifelong respiratory disease that causes breathing problems due to inflammation of the airways in the lungs. Symptoms include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and tightness in the chest. One out of six children in California under the age of 18 has been diagnosed with asthma, which is the number one cause of student absences due to chronic disease. Students with asthma not only miss school, but also miss out on social interaction with other children and may experience trouble with concentrating due to medication. There is no cure, but it can be managed and controlled by minimizing asthma “triggers” in the classroom — reducing dust mites, improving ventilation, using “green” or nontoxic cleaning products, eliminating scented products, and eliminating moisture and mold.
Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District demolished Crescent Elementary School in Suisun in 2003 due to black mold contamination, which has been linked to asthma. Driver decided to become involved in changing things districtwide when her classroom at Wilson Elementary School developed a leak and students began adversely reacting to the mold that resulted. In her testimony to the panel, Driver described how a district effort supported by CTA’s Healthy Air, Healthy Kids project changed things for the better.
“Our success at reducing the levels of indoor pollutants was totally based on communication and a commitment to shared priorities,” she told legislators. “We included the superintendent, the school board, the building and custodial staff, the EPA, and the Solano County Asthma Coalition. We taught teachers how to identify and report asthma triggers in their classrooms at the earliest stages using an EPA-adapted classroom checklist so they could be quickly addressed at the source.” (To access the checklist, visit EPA's website on managing asthma).
CTA Board member Don Bridge also attended the policy briefing, which was hosted by Assembly Member Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica). Bridge noted that legislators learned from EPA spokesman Shelly Rosenblum’s presentation that budget cuts might be exacerbating asthma problems in some school sites because rooms are being cleaned less often resulting in increased dust, and that deferred maintenance may result in more leaks and dirty air filters. Bridge also noted that portable classrooms — which were intended to be temporary — have become permanent fixtures at many school sites and tend to leak more than regular classrooms over time.
CTA’s Community Outreach staff, which oversees the Healthy Air, Healthy Kids project, wrote and helped produce a DVD and other materials on how teachers can become more proactive in their classrooms and at the district level in promoting healthier practices and policies in schools. Community Outreach staff also educate CTA members at workshops and conferences and at the local association level on how to reduce asthma triggers in their classroom, and can be contacted at (650) 552-5468 for more information and materials.