by Rhonda Keyser

In 2012, we were excited when we heard that the City was going to repair leaks in P.S. 29’s roof and walls and get rid of mold in our classrooms. We also had questions about how to protect our kids’ health. Parents were nervous, and wanted to make sure our children wouldn’t be exposed to toxic dust and fumes.

Unfortunately, we were immediately frustrated by the lack of effective communication with the SCA. Our questions weren’t being answered, even when we discovered that our kids’ classrooms were filled with dust every morning.

Fortunately, parents didn’t just sit back. We educated ourselves and got organized! We worked with our school’s staff and unions. We brought in elected officials and outside experts.

And it worked! Through our campaign, we developed a stronger relationship with the SCA and our school’s contractor. We worked with them to improve the construction plan. Together, we made sure that work was done safely. We repaired our school, while protecting our kids’ health.

Our work began with our realization that the then-current health and safety protocols for a school renovation such as ours were outdated and inadequate. Our pushback was long, tiring and all­consuming. We conducted research, circulated information to our community, visited the Department of Buildings, gathered information from health professionals, made calls to our elected representatives, submitted Freedom of Information Act requests after our direct questions went unanswered, and attended School Construction Authority meetings with our administration. We worked hard and, in a way, had luck on our side. We were lucky to be part of a community that had the time to champion these concerns. We were lucky to have an administration and parent leadership that allowed us to participate in the school construction and renovation process. And we were lucky to connect with city health professionals who listened and responded when we reached out.

But we know that safe indoor air quality in schools should not be based on the luck of any community. Safe indoor air quality, transparency, and clear oversight should be a required part of every school construction project. We at P.S. 29 claim many victories in our pushback against some of the inadequate procedures during school renovation. But despite these victories, despite our parents’ continued and constant vigilance and advocacy, despite our school’s consistent contact about our project, the standards we were successful at raising during our project have not been incorporated into current regulations or even Best Practices. The pamphlet linked below spells out the rights of any public school parent and the laws as they exist today governing these projects. In the short-­term, we hope to give other schools struggling with a lack of transparency a running start with this guide by combining our community’s findings and experience with the expertise and context of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest’s Environmental Justice division.

In the long-­term, our advocacy is not finished. We must build on this important work we’ve done in the past two years in order to safeguard the health and safety of our kids during our renovation projects. The health and safety of all public school children must guide scheduling and procedures as much as weather and bottom line profits. More work is needed to raise public awareness about the need for updated laws and best practices that reflect current scientific and medical knowledge and to answer a growing cry for transparency around the School Construction Process for all communities.