Imagine if our public schools were responsible for poisoning elementary school students on a regular basis. How would the community react if each day, giant metal contraptions spewing toxic fumes were placed directly outside the buildings where our children attend school. Imagine if this occurred as hundreds of 8-year olds emerged from the school building upon dismissal. Then imagine if half of those kids were then placed inside these contraptions, still inhaling toxic fumes, for an hour while they are transported home.
This is the reality for hundreds of thousand Kentucky public school students still subjected to the harmful environmental, health, and cognitive effects of the iconic yellow school bus.
Kentucky Public Schools’ 9,526 school buses transport approximately 360,000 students daily. Ninety-seven percent of those buses are powered by diesel and produce toxic exhaust that is harmful to students, educators, and our communities.
Exposure to air pollution similar to diesel exhaust has been linked to long-term chronic health conditions like asthma and hypertension and is especially harmful to elementary school students, whose faster breathing rates and developing lungs make them more susceptible to respiratory illness. These toxins’ impact is most acute for students in urban and rural communities who spend the longest amount of time on the bus inhaling toxic fumes.
In addition to the physical health detriments of diesel emissions, many students also experience measurable cognitive decline. Long and short-term exposure to toxic air pollution like diesel fuel emissions negatively impacts cognitive functioning and increases one’s risk of dementia. A recent Georgia study found that the cognitive and attendance benefits of reducing school bus emissions improve academic performance. The academic performance boost in English was the equivalent of going from a first-year rookie educator to one with five years of experience.
Kentucky should continue leading when it comes to addressing the environmental impact of our schools. Warren County’s Richardsville Elementary School, the first net-zero carbon emissions school in the nation, has gained international attention for its efforts. School Principal Stephanie Paynter (and former teacher to one of this op-ed’s co-authors) encourages all Kentucky schools to follow in their footsteps, “[We are] proud to be the first net-zero school in the nation, producing more energy that we consume through an efficient solar panel system. [Our commitment] 10 years ago to help not only our planet but also provide for students’ well-being and safety shows a commitment to renewable resources that will help future generations for many years to come,” she said.
In 2009 and in partnership with the Kentucky Clean Fuels Coalition, the Kentucky Department of Education ran a four-year program to procure Hybrid School buses for districts interested in transitioning their fleet. One hundred fifty-six aging diesel school buses were replaced with new hybrid-electric school buses with an average of 35% greater fuel efficiency. Jefferson and Pike County took the largest advantage of the program, with each replacing more than 30 diesel buses.
While the upfront cost of electric buses can be higher than diesel, lower maintenance and fuel costs ($170,000 in savings over its lifetime) make electric buses a worthwhile investment.
Powershare agreements can also further reduce the costs of transitioning to electric buses. These agreements reduce the upfront costs of transitioning to an electric fleet by letting utility companies use the bus batteries to supply and store energy. Most importantly, the improved student health and academic performance impact of transitioning to an electric bus fleet accrue further savings through increased lifetime earnings and decreased healthcare costs.
Kentucky’s K-12 schools are set to receive $3.3 billion under federal coronavirus relief legislation. These funds, which have relatively few strings attached, represent a significant opportunity for Kentucky schools. Given that energy costs are a school district’s second-highest expense behind salaries, district leaders should use COVID emergency relief funds to cover the upfront costs of electrifying the school bus fleet. The benefits to our environment, student health, and the district’s pocketbook are inexhaustible in every sense of the word.
(Arivumani Srivastava is a high school junior at Gatton Academy and a policy analyst with the Kentucky Student Voice Team. Andrew Brennen is Co-Founder of the Kentucky Student Voice Team and a 2020 Education Fellow with the National Geographic Society. The Student Voice Team was founded in 2012 by a small group of high school students and adult allies to give students more say in how their education works.)