Kids are sometimes called pests, but the real pests - mice, spiders, ants, cockroaches, flies, bed bugs, yellow jackets, scorpions and head lice - don't belong in the classroom. They make kids sick, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is on a mission to oust creepy, crawly critters from public schools.
The EPA's Integrated Pest Management program not only seeks to rid educational buildings of rodents and bugs but also promotes using greener tactics than poison and chemicals.
Of the 183 school districts in Colorado, 15 of the largest, including Colorado Springs School District 11 and Academy School District 20, are participating in the program, which was launched two years ago.
It's a health issue, said Deborah Young, a professor for the Colorado State University Extension, an off-campus, informal education arm of Colorado State University.
"It really interrupts the teaching when you have a mouse run across the desk," she said, "but also, pests have allergens and can carry diseases."
Mouse urine and cockroach saliva, for example, can trigger asthma attacks, she said, and deer mice transmit the sometimes fatal hantavirus. Recent studies from the EPA report 14 million school days each year are missed due to asthma.
"We want schools to be the healthiest place they can be, not just for the kids, but for the teachers and all the people who work there," said Young, who coordinates the Integrated Pest Management program statewide. In addition to the educational system, industries such as farming and ranching, the housing sector, recreation areas and municipalities are being introduced to the concept.
Spraying pesticides doesn't help indoor air quality at schools, said Clyde Wilson, who runs the pesticides and lead outreach programs in the EPA's Denver office. But that's how most schools handle the unwanted visitors - they hire an exterminator.
"Our focus is to look at ways to minimize the volumes of pesticides being used in the school environment," he said. "Spray volatizes and vaporizes and gets into the bloodstream. That creates an element of human risk."
Pests are "a major problem," in schools for several reasons, Wilson said. A 2007 study by the U.S. Department of Education determined that 75 percent of schools were built before 1970, and older buildings with shifting foundations and cracks become a breeding ground for pests.
"There's no such thing as a pest-free school. They'll find their way in. They're like us - they need food, water and a place to call home. Schools have all those things under one roof and become like a big pest hotel," Wilson said.
Sanitation practices also play a role in encouraging vermin. Food in classrooms has become an issue, Wilson said, particularly because some schools serve meals in classrooms to help improve academic performance. But crumbs invite pests, he said.
The situation can be remedied by taking preventive steps to keep pests out of buildings, which is what the Integrated Pest Management Program teaches.
"The idea is that spraying should be the last resort in a school environment; other strategies should be used first. Not only does it save schools money, but the health of the kids and staff is improved," said Barbara Bates, who heads the local CSU Extension office. "It fits with El Paso County's strategic plan to improve the safety, security and health of the community."
In recent weeks, a team of experts from the EPA and the CSU Extension, inspected high school kitchens and several entire buildings in Colorado Springs School District 11 and three schools in D-20.
At Pine Creek High School on Thursday, the meticulous process had team members examining crevices with blacklights, looking for droppings, carcasses and other evidence. They also pointed out openings where insects and rodents can enter and offered advice.
Mouse excrement in the band room and an ant colony in an electrical closet were among the findings, along with open bags of chips and cookies, candy bars, pop and other food items scattered about.
"We've seen some really gross things," said Genevieve Berry, a CSU Extension specialist who inspects schools with Young. "We're not saying you can't have food, but here are potential problems and here's how to deal them. It's about changing habits and the culture."
The CSU Extension received a $250,000 grant from the EPA to audit schools, prepare a report of the findings, make recommendations and train custodial staff on environmentally friendly pest management.
D-11 plans to follow the recommendations, according to Dan Moors, environmental safety supervisor. Replacing worn door sweeps, sealing holes around pipes and fixing broken screens are among the remedies.
"Food storage was a big recommendation because traditionally snacks are brought into many classrooms," he said. "Instead of being kept out in the open, it will now be stored properly."
That means putting food away in a plastic container with a sealed lid, said the EPA's Wilson. Trash also should be removed daily, bagged and placed in a container with a lid, he said.
Facilities crews now are educating principals and building managers, so the practices will be applied in all D-11 schools.
Already, Moors said, schools are seeing results.
"In just our kitchens alone, we've been able cut down significantly on calls to the exterminator, using methods to prevent potential problems before they happen," he said. "Our facilities department also is responding directly to any issues instead of going to a vendor, so we've saved money using our own people who have been trained in these methods."
D-20 has had an elementary, middle and high school checked for pests and is considering getting on board, said Jose Costas, custodial coordinator.
"We'd heard about the program and started researching it and are still in the evaluation phase," he said. "We think it would support some of our sustainability goals."
Yellow jackets, ants and mice have been the primary concerns, he said.
The district would need to spend money upfront to buy new door sweeps, seal openings and fix other problem areas, Costas said, but would expect to save money in the long run.
"We would be able to rely less and less on a pest management company, which should produce cost savings," he said. "We've had positive reaction and enthusiasm from the staff."
The EPA's goal is for every K-12 public school in the U.S. to adopt an Integrated Pest Management plan by 2015, Wilson said. Harrison District 2, also may participate in the assessment phase in upcoming months, he added.