Schools as Community Cleaner Air and Cooling Centers
Communities across the United States are facing the impacts of climate change, including severe health consequences from disasters like heat waves and wildfires. During the week-long, record-setting heatwave in June 2021, Washington state estimates that 100 people died from extreme heat, and the entire Northwest region saw spikes in emergency room visits due to heat-related illnesses. A study published in 2020 estimated that between 1997 and 2006, an average of 5,600 annual deaths were attributed to extreme heat exposure in the United States, making heat the deadliest killer among extreme weather events. In addition, smoke from wildfires adversely affects air quality and puts more people at health risk from smoke exposure. Recent studies suggest that air pollutant exposure worsens COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes.
Extreme heat and wildfire smoke disproportionately affect vulnerable communities who have existing health issues, such as cardiovascular disease, or who already have poor air quality because they are near industry or highways. And neighborhoods that have been historically redlined are often those with the worst heat impacts due to lack of green space, as a 2020 article from NPR detailed.
As community-based organizations, local governments, and other partners work to protect people from the health risks from wildfire smoke and extreme heat, there is a clear need to create more safe places for people to go during these increasingly frequent events.
EPA is using American Rescue Plan funding to provide technical assistance for the development of neighborhood cleaner air and cooling centers in public school facilities. This specialized support will help align broader investments in healthy schools with the need for more safe spaces in vulnerable communities during wildfire smoke and extreme heat events.
This program has multiple goals, including:
- Improving ventilation and filtration systems in public school facilities to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission and other airborne illnesses.
- Creating healthy learning environments through improved indoor air quality in schools.
- Keeping schools open over the long term in the face of more frequent and severe extreme heat and wildfire smoke events.
- Establishing cleaner air shelters and cooling centers in areas known to have more residents susceptible to serious health impacts from extreme heat and wildfire smoke.
EPA and its consultant team, who will have expertise in disaster policy, community engagement, and HVAC engineering, will host workshops with local partners to create an action plan to retrofit a selected school. The outcome from these workshops will be a clear plan for how partners will work together, what steps are required to implement HVAC retrofits, and how public school facilities will be used over the long term as cleaner air and cooling centers for the broader community. Finally, the EPA assistance will provide a pilot for how the community might apply this approach in other school buildings or public facilities.
EPA’s assistance will be informed by community-based organizations in each location to ensure that the projects are centered on the vision of those who live and work in these communities—especially those whose voices have historically been underrepresented. This effort is part of EPA’s commitment to achieving environmental justice by elevating community efforts to address legacy injustices made worse by a changing climate and the COVID-19 pandemic.
This project is a partnership between EPA’s Office of Community Revitalization, Office of Air and Radiation’s Indoor Environments Division, Office of Children’s Health Protection, Office of Research and Development, and EPA Regions 9 and 10.
Starting in 2022, EPA will provide assistance to four communities:
- The Bay Area Air Quality Management District in California requested assistance to implement air filtration improvements to better protect children, vulnerable populations, and disproportionately impacted communities, especially from wildfire smoke and air pollution. This project will help the Air District build a network of facilities with high-efficiency air filtration across the region and strengthen existing relationships with environmental justice advocates, schools, and community leaders.
- Kittitas County, Washington, is a rural county in central Washington that has seen an increase in frequency and intensity of wildfire smoke. In the summer of 2021, Kittitas County set a record high temperature of 110 degrees Fahrenheit and then broke that record the next day when the temperature hit 114 degrees. EPA’s assistance aligns with plans to retrofit multiple schools in the county over the next year and will ensure these investments are designed to protect public health for the most vulnerable people in the county.
- Multnomah County, Oregon, will partner with Portland Public Schools and other stakeholders to implement goals identified in the county’s Climate Change and Public Health Preparation Plan and Climate Action Plan. The EPA assistance will build on existing partnerships with community-based organizations to advance health equity and protect the most vulnerable by creating more high-quality, localized shelter spaces in response to heat and wildfire events. EPA’s assistance will also help identify priority facilities for retrofit in the largest school district in Oregon.
- Pima County, Arizona, is the third fastest-warming area in the country, and this technical assistance will support existing local efforts to address climate-related public health threats, such as extreme heat, and to expand current cooling centers, especially those serving vulnerable populations. It will also strengthen community partnerships with a readily accessible network of partners with a deep and thorough understanding of local needs. The health department will work closely with Pima County Department of Environmental Quality, the county school superintendent, selected schools, and community partners to co-design a plan for expanding school-based cooling and clean air centers in neighborhoods disproportionately affected by extreme heat.
Please contact Abby Hall (202-631-5915, firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have any questions.