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Why We Need to Electrify America’s School Bus Fleet

Diesel fumes spewed by the buses we're using poison children, drivers and neighborhoods. Transitioning to electric buses also can create good jobs and healthier communities.

(Photo: Ann Arbor Public Schools)
Across the nation, the pandemic has revealed the urgency of prioritizing healthy classrooms. But while we fight to protect children and teachers from COVID-19, we should also prioritize kids' health on their way to and from school. The answer: electrifying our diesel-guzzling, fume-pumping school buses. A new report from Jobs to Move America illustrates how to get the transition right for children, workers and communities.

The diesel exhaust emitted by America's some 480,000 school buses is especially harmful for the growing lungs of the 26 million children they transport every school day. Levels of pollution are even worse inside the bus than outside on the roadway, and recent studies have shown that the fleet's emissions can be associated with higher rates of school absenteeism and lower test scores. This impact is particularly concerning for children of color who live in communities that already experience dangerous levels of pollution and therefore high asthma rates.

School bus fumes are also harmful to workers and neighborhoods. Every school day, drivers, attendants and maintenance technicians are exposed to dangerously high levels of air pollution on the bus, in parking lots and at service yards. This pollution spreads into the neighborhoods where these buses idle, which, as activists in New York have documented, are predominantly low-income communities of color that already suffer severe air pollution. As a result of these environmental factors, Black children are twice as likely to suffer from asthma and experience disproportionately higher rates of school absenteeism. It's partly due to this air-pollution exposure over a lifespan that people of color are more likely to die from COVID-19.

There is a better way. Electric school buses are free of tailpipe emissions, and the technology is now effective and reliable. It's time to make the transition from smoke-belching school buses to emission-free vehicles powered by electricity.

Jobs to Move America's researchers examined how New York state, home to the nation's largest school district, could harness electric school buses to create good jobs and healthier, more equitable communities. When purchasing new buses, local officials can use a road-tested good jobs and equity policy called the U.S. Employment Plan to incentivize manufacturers to produce and source as much as possible in the U.S. and create good, family-sustaining jobs.

It's also imperative to safeguard job stability and employment terms for school bus workers. School bus funding programs should prevent layoffs and invest in apprenticeship and other training programs so that bus technicians, drivers and attendants have the skills they need to keep the new buses running safely and efficiently. Electrifying our school buses also will require new electrical infrastructure. Strong safety and certification standards, such as the industry-leading Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Training Program, will ensure safe installation while creating good jobs. People in the communities that are worst-affected by the cumulative effects of air pollution should be first in line for training and job development programs.

Finally, officials should design their electric school bus programs to prioritize deployment first in communities of color, low-income communities and districts that are the most severely impacted by air pollution and environmental racism.

The main barrier to widespread adoption is cost. The best way to overcome this barrier is to provide funding for large purchases that will help manufacturers produce at scale and lower prices. California has taken the lead with its School Bus Replacement Program, which has helped deploy hundreds of electric buses across the state and reduce the price tag while stabilizing and creating good jobs in bus manufacturing, operations and maintenance.

In New York, meanwhile, state leaders and activists are working to pass the Climate and Community Investment Act, which would create a new national standard for serious worker- and community-centered investment in electric school buses. At the federal level, Congress is considering multiple proposals to help fund clean buses nationwide, and President Biden has proposed major funding for electric school buses in his infrastructure package, the American Jobs Plan.

Now that emission-free buses are possible and practical, there's no good reason to keep poisoning kids, workers and communities with dirty fumes. Electric school buses are a common sense solution; officials now have a policy framework to make the transition common sense as well.

John A. Costa is the international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union. Sonal Jessel is the director of policy for WE ACT for Environmental Justice.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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