By Hannah E. Jones
About 26 million students board school buses daily — with the vast majority of fleets running off diesel — and exposure to their fumes has been linked to lower test scores and worse respiratory health for children. If a child rides the bus, that is generally the most polluted air they breathe all day.
One organization, Mothers and Others for Clean Air (M&O), is working to reduce the impacts of air pollution and climate change throughout the Southeast. M&O works with caretakers, health professionals, scientists and teachers to protect children’s health by improving air quality.
In October, Tanya Coventry-Strader was named executive director of the organization after also serving in the interim role. As she puts it, the organization “is really trying to reinforce the fact that healthy air is health care.”
In this new role, Coventry-Strader’s current focus is a push to replace Georgia’s diesel school buses with electric ones.
Diesel school buses are among the most polluting vehicles on the road, and children riding in them are estimated to be exposed to four times the level of exhaust compared to a car. This can contribute to allergies, asthma and lung cancer. Another study showed that retrofitting the engines of an entire fleet could improve student test scores by six percent and lung health by four percent.
“Our own governor has said he wants to be the capital for electric vehicles. That’s absolutely fabulous, but let’s just make that happen quicker,” Coventry-Strader said about Governor Kemp’s statement in January, “By the end of my second term as your governor, I intend for Georgia to be recognized as the electric mobility capital of America.”
She added: “Let’s understand some of the challenges that our communities are having, and help them work through these challenges.”
The team is getting busy this summer while school is out of session, meeting with local school systems to discuss EPA grant funding opportunities for electric buses. Through its new Clean School Bus program, the agency is awarding a total of $5 billion over five years to schools across the U.S.
Last year, 397 school districts were selected to receive electric and low-emission fleets, including 127 zero-pollution buses that were distributed across 14 Georgia school districts.
The organization has already connected with DeKalb County Schools and City Schools of Decatur, and Coventry-Strader feels confident that their leadership is on board. Next on the agenda is Cobb County, the second-largest school system in Georgia.
“It’s an amazing injection of funding, resources and opportunity,” Coventry-Strader said. “We really have to be so careful… that we’re looking at this as a system-wide opportunity to make improvements in places that really, really need it.”
She continued: “There’s momentum, and there’s energy around this. I think Georgia has a great opportunity to come out as a leader [in clean energy].”
Even if this funding isn’t awarded, M&O sees other opportunities to improve school bus conditions while “the infrastructure catches up with the need,” Coventry-Strader noted. For example, newer engines, propane buses and air purification systems.
In her new position as executive director, Coventry-Strader also aims to continue to educate folks about the importance of clean air, ways to improve your indoor air quality and how to support the cause.
“Clean air, to me, means that children can run and play freely in the schoolyard, in parks [and] in their yard without moms having to worry about getting their inhaler out or making sure that their child can breathe,” Coventry-Strader said. “My daughter had asthma as she was growing up, and I always had that emergency inhaler on the sidelines of the soccer field. My sister had it when she was growing up. Clean air means freedom for children to run, play, breathe and not have to worry.”
To learn more about Mothers & Others for Clean Air, click here.