Leaky roofs, poor ventilation, and breaking amenities were a problem when she graduated from St. Clair High School. They still are now that she teaches there.
EAST CHINA, Mich.—Parker Shea is a substitute teacher in Michigan’s Thumb, one of the hardest-hit areas for the coronavirus. She said adapting to the pandemic has been a big undertaking for most schools, as many continue to defer maintenance on their buildings due to a history of inadequate funding both on a state and federal level.
“In terms of the pandemic from what I’ve seen, they are trying to update infrastructure-wise with filters and disinfectant,” Shea told The ‘Gander. “But it really depends on the administrator on how well those things are enforced, and can differ from building to building.”
That struggle to adapt to the ongoing public health crisis is a reflection of the broader infrastructure problems in Michigan schools, Shea said. Funding from the recent COVID relief package, the American Rescue Plan, has provided some aid. But the pandemic has magnified the consequences of decades of disinvestment in public schools. President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal is aiming to address that broader problem.
A relatively new substitute teacher, Shea works in the same district that she attended school in just four years ago. In other words, Shea, who is using a pseudonym to avoid jeopardizing her relationship with administrators, has seen the decaying infrastructure of St. Clair High School both as a student and now as a teacher.
“When I was on the swim team back in the day, the pools would always be breaking, either burning us chemically or the heater would go out so we couldn’t use it,” Shea recounted.
This is the same high school where English teacher Kim Eberhard was skeptical about returning to in-person instruction at the start of the school year: The school’s outdated infrastructure did not put it in a good position to minimize transmission of the airborne coronavirus in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. But the school’s infrastructure problems run deeper.
Trying to Rebuild East China
The East China School District for years struggled with lacking funds. Mismanagement in the 2000s “ruined” the district, said one local resident, and since then the district’s constant budget troubles have led to shedding infrastructure, rather than repairing it. This, combined with the education disinvestment, leaves Shea teaching in schools that she said are in dire need of repairs.
“[There are] loads of ceiling leaks, some classroom doors are so old they don’t have proper locking mechanisms to help in a lockdown situation,” Shea said. “The heating and cooling systems are a mess and costly.”
But even before the pandemic shifted the priorities of school infrastructure, these problems were left largely unresolved. The schools, Shea said, simply lack the resources to resolve those issues.
For East China, though, things might be turning around. While noting that she doesn’t doubt Shea’s experiences, district spokesperson Dawn Croce said a bond that passed in 2020 aims to totally revitalize the physical infrastructure of East China schools.
“We’re updating all our facilities; it’s already starting now,” Croce told The ‘Gander. “What was passed was a pretty large bond. We haven’t passed a good, comprehensive bond in years and years and years.”
She said one roof at a local school has already been repaired, and the next task will be renovations at the stadium in the district. Eventually, heating and cooling issues, outdated doors, and other issues will be addressed as well.
Investing in Infrastructure Across the Country
Something that sets Biden’s infrastructure plan, first introduced last month, apart from other views of infrastructure is its scope. To Biden, education is its own kind of infrastructure: Because education is essential to creating the backbone of a strong, functional United States, it’s imperative that school buildings are safe places of learning for kids.
Infrastructure problems impact students, and the pandemic has brought that to the forefront, acting as another factor compounding the existing strain born from faltering facilities, Shea explained.
“It’s frustrating for everything to be broken or problematic, even when I was there,” Shea said.
Biden’s infrastructure plan earmarks $100 billion for new school construction and, importantly, upgrades existing buildings nationwide. Money from the package could be used for projects like fixing school roofs or repairing the heating and cooling systems that too often bleed funding from other potential facilities improvements.
In this way, there’s a strong parallel to more traditional physical infrastructure projects, such as roads and bridges. Just as these structures have been left to decay due to budget cuts for decades, so have the institutions teachers like Shea have taught in for generations.
“Look at all of the schools in America,” Biden told reporters in March. “In your hometowns—I don’t know where you’re all from—how many schools where the kids can’t drink the water out of the fountain? How many schools are still in the position where there’s asbestos? How many schools in America we’re sending our kids to don’t have adequate ventilation?”
His answer: not enough.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify when Biden’s infrastructure plan was first introduced.