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Switch to electric school buses will protect kids’ health

Photo courtesy California Air Resources Board

Here in Arizona, every child should be able to safely travel to school and learn in a healthy environment. Yet for the more than 950,000 students in public schools in Arizona, it’s nearly impossible to escape the harms that can come along with riding to and from school on buses that are powered with dirty diesel fuel.  

Fortunately, Congress, including U.S. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly, has an opportunity to create a healthier school environment by supporting the transition to zero-emission school buses as part of federal infrastructure investments.  

As school board members representing districts across Maricopa County, we are keenly aware of the health issues students encounter when taking the bus. They are not just breathing in dirty exhaust fumes when they hop on and off the school bus every day, but also when they’re simply waiting outside school while buses idle nearby. In our state alone, there are more than 7,000 school buses on the road, with the vast majority being diesel-powered. This means toxic emissions are spewing into the air each and every day.  

Steve Gallardo

Arizona is no stranger to unhealthy levels of pollution. According to the American Lung Association’s latest “State of the Air” report, while there have been improvements in past years, Maricopa County received an F grade for dangerous levels of ozone and short-term particle pollution, two of the most widespread pollutants.  

Studies show that exposure to air pollution is detrimental to children’s lung function. This is because their lungs are still developing. The more than 130,000 kids in our state with asthma are especially vulnerable. What’s more, children’s brains and respiratory systems are particularly sensitive to the toxics in diesel engine exhaust. And the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organization, has classified diesel exhaust as carcinogenic to humans. 

Kids from low-income communities are more likely to depend on traveling to school on the bus, and thus bear more of the burden of pollution from diesel-powered buses. Black and Hispanic communities are also exposed to disproportionally high levels of particle pollution, putting their health at greater risk.   

Studies show that air pollution can impact academic achievement, too. Exposure to pollutants in schools, including from diesel buses, has been linked to lower test scores and school attendance rates 

If we know that setting our students up for academic success must start with making sure they’re learning in a safe and healthy environment, then why are we continuing to put them in harm’s way? Our students deserve better.  

That’s why I’m advocating for Sinema and Kelly to support investing at least $20 billion in the transition to zero-emission school buses as part of federal infrastructure investments. This investment will transition one-fifth of the country’s school bus fleet, including a percentage of ours here in Arizona, to zero-emission buses.   

A recent poll shows that Arizona voters agree with this change. An overwhelming majority (65%) of Arizona voters — across all major demographic groups — believe that transitioning the national school bus fleet to be zero-emission would have a positive impact on the health of America’s school children. 

By replacing diesel-powered buses here in Arizona, we will significantly improve air quality for students, reducing their exposure to toxic pollutants like nitrogen oxides and particle pollution.  

Not only is this investment a smart decision for our students’ health and learning, it’s also smart for our pocket-books. Transitioning to zero-emission school buses will save Arizona school districts and taxpayers money over the long-term.   

zero-emission school bus can save schools about $2,000 in fuel costs and $4,400 in maintenance costs each year, making it two thirds less costly to operate than a diesel bus. A significant federal investment will bring this technology where it is needed most—to local school districts like ours. But right now, because the upfront cost can be high, many districts across Arizona continue to stick with polluting, unhealthy diesel buses. 

Our children are worth the investment. Students should be able to get to and from school without being forced to inhale dangerous exhaust fumes every day. It’s not only critical for their health, but critical for their academic success.  

Senators Sinema and Kelly, we hope you will do right by our students by supporting funding for the transition to zero-emission buses as part of federal infrastructure investments.  

Steve Gallardo is a member of the Phoenix Union High School District and a Maricopa County supervisor.  

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