Commentary | Upgrading school bus fleets is a critical key to cleaner air

As summer flies by and kids prepare for the new school year, it’s a good time to reflect on how we can build a cleaner, less polluted world for our children. Smoke and high pollution levels from wildfires in the past few months have made us all acutely aware of poor air quality that can affect some of our most vulnerable residents, including our kids. Thankfully, there are new opportunities for Massachusetts to make our children safer and deliver cleaner air for our communities; one of them is the federal funding available to upgrade our school bus fleets.

The EPA’s Clean School Bus Program offers both rebate and grant programs that school districts and third-party contractors can apply for to cover the cost of electric school buses and charging infrastructure. This federal funding is a major opportunity for school districts across Massachusetts to electrify school buses, provide students with a clean ride, and improve our air quality. 

A number of districts, including Boston, Beverly, Quincy, and Arlington, have already started the transition. Last year, five Bay State districts – New Bedford, Lawrence, Fall River, Lower Pioneer Valley, and Upper Cape Cod – received a $30 million purse in the first round of EPA funding to purchase 76 zero-emission school buses. This is a great start, but we have a long way to go.

Some 40,000 students are transported by more than 8,000 buses every school day in Massachusetts. A vast majority of the buses are running on old diesel engines that are driving climate change and polluting the air. They pose a significant threat to the health and well-being of our children, our bus drivers, and our communities.

Diesel exhaust is a known carcinogen and poses a significant threat to our children, whose developing brains and respiratory systems are particularly susceptible to its serious impacts on health and cognitive development. Breathing in toxic fumes every day can contribute to respiratory diseases like asthma and its ilk.

These dangerous effects are disproportionately felt by students from low-income families and students from communities of color as they are more likely to rely on school buses and reside in communities near highways and areas with high air pollution from numerous vehicles. The effects can also be more harmful to children with disabilities, who often spend longer time on the bus.

A transition to electric school buses offers an opportunity to greatly improve the health of our children, our communities, and address the impacts of climate change. These buses, with their predictable routes, are ideal candidates for electrification with its zero tailpipe emissions. They are much quieter and can save districts thousands of dollars in operation and maintenance costs. In addition, when not transporting students, electric school buses can use vehicle to grid (V2G) technology to send energy back to the grid during peak demand events and power outages.

There is a growing demand among school districts in Massachusetts and nationally to roll out electric buses, in large part due to the funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which still has close to $4 billion left for use through 2026.  For school districts in the Commonwealth that are still in the early stages of electrification planning, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center offers no-cost technical assistance to get you started and provides additional deployment assistance to school districts that secure federal funding.  

As parents, educators, neighbors, and community members, we must come together and urge our local school districts to take advantage of the EPA’s Clean School Bus Program, so we can get more zero-emissions school buses on Massachusetts roads. Cleaning up our school bus fleets will help our state to cut down on harmful transportation pollution and give our children the clean, safe commute to school that they deserve.

Veena Dharmaraj is the director of transportation for the Massachusetts Sierra Club Chapter.

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