Comerford, Domb push for ‘accountability’ on green and healthy schools

MINDY DOMB

MINDY DOMB

JO COMERFORD

JO COMERFORD

PHOTO BY DAVE CUMMINGS

PHOTO BY DAVE CUMMINGS PHOTO BY DAVE CUMMINGS

By EDEN MOR

For the Recorder

Published: 10-16-2023 5:43 PM

Two Pioneer Valley lawmakers are seeking a more concrete plan — including the creation of a “watchdog group” — to improve the health of public school buildings and reduce their environmental impact.

Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, were able to incorporate several pieces of their proposal for healthy and green public schools as part of a major bill focused on clean energy and offshore wind. That bill passed last year as part of the Legislature’s 2021-2022 session.

Their goal was to collect data on the health of school buildings, including their energy and resource efficiency, to limit exposure to toxic chemicals and create an environment that is “conducive to learning,” according to the original bill.

“It was really an exciting and pretty sweeping bill,” Comerford said of the measure, which “urged the collection of real data” on the conditions of school buildings and their infrastructure.

As a follow-up, the lawmakers this legislative session are proposing the creation of a working group and implementation plan to create a “watchdog group” to monitor progress on reaching the goals established by the previous bill.

Comerford said she began to pursue the original piece of legislation in reaction to several issues brought to her attention during the COVID-19 pandemic. At a time when ventilation was important to the safety of students and faculty, Comerford found that old school buildings were unable to open their windows, creating severe health hazards.

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Where some communities with newer buildings could afford new heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, others fell behind.

“To see the older buildings in largely the poor communities really disproportionately struggle from a public health sense was wrenching,” Comerford said.

Though the data being collected on the health of school buildings is still in process and not yet available to the public, Comerford expects it to be “pretty revolutionary.”

The collection requires collaboration among the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Massachusetts School Building Authority, the Department of Public Health and the Department of Environmental Protection, Comerford said.

Domb and Comerford are still looking for that final push to make their plan “actionable,” Domb said during her testimony at a September hearing before the Legislature’s Education Committee.

“[We need to] make sure that those plans are not only effective and doable, but get implemented,” she said.

The green and healthy schools bill is part of a larger effort by the state government to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Comerford said this goal is specifically applicable to western Massachusetts, which reduces and sequesters carbon emissions through its open working lands.

The bill allows Massachusetts to tackle emissions from the “built environment,” an opportunity that rarely presents itself despite the fact that “between 30% and 40% of all global warming carbon emissions come from the built environment,” Comerford said.

The lawmakers hope that they can build on last session’s momentum.

“Right now ... we have an administration and a Legislature that is dedicating money and we have a federal government dedicating money to schools, to school buildings,” Comerford said. “But we don’t have a roadmap.”

Eden Mor writes for the Greenfield Recorder as part of the Boston University Statehouse Program.