Alabama members fighting to keep their school safe

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After students and school employees started having respiratory problems last year at an elementary school in Alabama—the kinds of problems that require inhalers, nebulizers and even CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machines—their district closed the school in January and moved everybody to an adjacent building on the same campus.

But the mold problems at J. S. Abrams Elementary School continued. Not sure what to do next, members of the Jefferson County AFT activated their union this spring, and their activism grew when the Bessemer Area School District tried, unsuccessfully, to move everyone back into the sick building. Until there is a thorough cleaning and an investigation into the source of the problems, JCAFT members say, students and school employees should not be moved. They're skeptical of a quick fix. In the meantime, minor problems from mold have continued with the rugs, books and other materials brought over from the original building.


Jefferson County AFT members wearing mold masksFrom left, teacher Selithia Holyfield, paraprofessional Shawndreka Johnson and JCAFT staff Sheila Jones.

"We are not going to stop until this is a safe place for our school employees and students," says JCAFT President Marrianne Hayward.

During Infrastructure Week May 15-19, the AFT has joined with affiliates and allies nationwide in highlighting stories like this one. It's high time for all of America's kids to have clean, modern schools as part of a concerted effort to rebuild the country's crumbling infrastructure: schools and hospitals, as well as bridges, highways, broadband networks, power grids and other public works. During his campaign last year, President Trump promised an overhaul of the nation's infrastructure. Now it's time to deliver.

In a report released May 16, the Center for American Progress cites research indicating that states and local school districts are underinvesting in capital construction and maintenance by at least $46 billion every year. In addition, school districts now have more than $400 billion in outstanding debt, principally issued for financing capital projects. And in many parts of the country, particularly in rural areas, there are "child care deserts" where such facilities are simply unavailable.

By spending $50 billion each year for 10 years to provide a combination of grants and low-cost financing for school modernization and expansion, and to build child care facilities, the researchers say preK-12 schools can be brought up to speed.

To that end, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, on May 17 introduced legislation that would invest in school infrastructure as a way to achieve greater educational equity, invigorate communities and create jobs. H.R. 2475, the Rebuild America's Schools Act, would invest $100 billion in school facilities, including broadband networks. Dozens of House Democrats joined in co-sponsoring the bill.

AFT President Randi Weingarten supports the legislation. "Every day, students attend schools that put their health and safety at risk," she says. "Mold on floors, classrooms without heat, leaking ceilings and no working internet. Our children deserve better. Public schools throughout the nation must be included on the list for immediate investment and modernization."

Meanwhile, JCAFT members in Alabama keep pushing to make their school safe and healthy again. They plan to hold the district accountable, educate themselves and their community, and provide ways for everyone involved to be seen and heard.

[Annette Licitra, Shannon Sullivan/JCAFT photo]