As children return to schools amid the continuing pandemic, parents and educators must turn their attention back to the mundane logistics of pre-pandemic life, including how to get the kids to school. Yet COVID-19 has highlighted connections that public health experts have long understood: the ways we transport ourselves to work and school impact public health and can ultimately affect our susceptibility to certain pathogens.
While children are less likely to become seriously ill from the coronavirus, those frequently exposed to air pollution are at increased risk. Children are among the most vulnerable to fine particulate air pollution; their respiratory systems are still in development, but they breathe in more air per pound of body weight than adults.
With each breath, then, students who rely on school transportation are disproportionately impacted by diesel exhaust. Numerous studies have shown that pollutants are even more highly concentrated inside the bus, which can be up to 11 times higher when following another diesel bus.
To compound the matter, research from Harvard University* suggests that counties with higher air pollution levels will experience increased hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19. Taking action to reduce air pollution can protect our children from the potential health impacts of the current pandemic and future public health crises.
Electric school buses have the power to change that. With zero emissions at the tailpipe, electric school buses can eliminate students’ exposure to harmful pollutants such as particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, and carbon monoxide, which have been linked to higher mortality rates, lung cancer, asthma, and chronic bronchitis. Electrifying student transportation also provides cleaner air for communities. Switching from diesel-powered school buses to electric could avoid an average of 5.3 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year — a measurable step towards combating the climate crisis.
The Center for Transportation and the Environment (CTE) is already working with school districts and decision-makers to increase use of electric school buses across the country. As a national nonprofit that supports end-users looking to deploy zero-emission technologies, CTE works with entities like Stockton (Calif.) Unified School District (USD) to find funding and implement the technical and outreach activities necessary for a successful switch to electric vehicles. CTE is supporting Stockton USD as it pursues its goal of becoming California’s first zero-emission school district.
To realize a healthier school transportation system at a national level, CTE also supports legislation such as U.S. Sen. and vice president nominee Kamala Harris’s and Rep. Jahana Hayes’s Clean School Bus Act of 2019, which calls to accelerate our nation’s school bus fleet electrification. The Clean School Bus Act would provide grants of up to $2 million for school districts to replace diesel buses with electric ones, invest in charging infrastructure, and support workforce development. It also prioritizes school transportation systems that serve low-income students. Funding should benefit all schools — not just wealthy districts — so that every child can experience zero-emission transportation’s health benefits.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we must prepare for the unexpected, but we must also consider the connections between our daily routines and broader societal health. Now, more than ever, it is time to mitigate our children’s exposure to harmful pollutants.
As Harris stated, according to a news release from her office, “Our children deserve a healthy environment to learn and grow — at school, at home, and everywhere in between. I’m proud to work with Rep. Hayes on the Clean School Bus Act, which will clean the air our students breathe and help fight the climate crisis. We must take action to protect our students.”
*Wu, X., Nethery, R. C., Sabath, M. B., Braun, D. and Dominici, F., 2020. Air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States: Strengths and limitations of an ecological regression analysis. Science advances, 6, p.eabd4049.
Erik Bigelow is a senior engineering consultant at the Center for Transportation and the Environment.