Traditional yellow school buses — and their exhaust-spewing tailpipes — aren’t making life any easier for the seven million U.S. children living with asthma. According to one mom and climate justice advocate, the diesel-emitting buses are making matters worse.  

Almeta E. Cooper, the national field manager at Moms Clean Air Force, is on a mission to help school districts switch from diesel-emitting buses — which aggravate the chronic lung disease and cause cancer — to buses powered by electric energy. 

Just a few years ago, Black kids were eight times more likely to die from asthma than white kids. Could changing how kids are bussed to school bring some relief? 

In this Q&A with Word In Black, Cooper shares what’s happening on a federal level to make the switch and how you can get involved:

WORD IN BLACK: What led to your realization that diesel emission school buses were hurting the health of children? Did you notice any changes in your own child’s health? 

ALMETA E. COOPER: As someone working at the intersection of climate and health equity, tailpipe pollution is deeply concerning. I work with families all across the country living in areas where the air is unhealthy to breathe. Diesel pollution only exacerbates the problem of dirty air. Fortunately, my own daughter Elise did not have asthma as a child. However, I vividly remember the first time she rode an iconic yellow school bus to kindergarten. I had pinned a name badge to her sweater with her name and her teacher’s name.  We were both excited. Although, I had no idea at the time that school bus ride was exposing her to dirty diesel fuel pollution. Also, I have family and friends with children who suffer from asthma and on “code orange” days they are advised not to engage in active physical activity — and they should also avoid the additional exposure to fumes on a school bus.

WIB: What negative health effects have you noticed from diesel emission school buses? And what would be the positive health effects of electric school buses? 

AEC: The known negative effects of diesel emissions include that this pollutant is a human carcinogen. Also, diesel emissions may adversely affect a child’s development. Further it aggravates asthma, the leading chronic disease for children in the U. S. In contrast, electric school buses are powered by clean electric energy and do not emit any diesel pollution or emissions and, therefore, are the safest for our children and their bus drivers.   

WIB: What is your hope and vision for the future, as far as the health and safety of children and residents in the Atlanta area?

AEC: Atlanta and Fulton County consistently receive a failing grade from the American Lung Association in their annual State of the Air Report. When you combine the poor air quality and the notoriously bad traffic patterns, that is a terrible result for children or anyone with respiratory illness. 

The transportation sector is the largest contributor to air pollution nationally. Unfortunately, African-American children often live in neighborhoods close to highways and this pollution and dirty air exacerbates the impact of pollution for them.

My vision for the future is that electric vehicles with zero tailpipe pollution become the norm for all vehicles on the road. This transition can help clean up the air for our kids and reduce climate-harming carbon dioxide pollution at the same time. We need to build the public and political will to make sure we transition to all electric vehicles — and now! The good news is that this technology is ready to roll. 

WIB: Can you talk to me about your work with Moms Clean Air Force and your involvement in the process to electrify America’s school buses? How are you and the organization working to ensure the process is equitable for school counties across the country? 

AEC: Moms Clean Air Force is made up of more than 1 million members who care deeply about children’s health. Our members’ moving stories and examples inspire my advocacy on a daily basis. I am motivated to fight for clean air and protect children’s health because pollution from the transportation sector adversely impacts health. As a mom, a member of Moms Clean Air Force and of my community, I care deeply about environmental justice, especially the connection between climate change and health equity for our most vulnerable populations. 

Climate change is a major contributor to the health crisis in African-American communities — not in some distant future, but right now when severe heat waves regularly threaten public health, preying especially on older adults, pregnant women, and low-income communities in Georgia and elsewhere. African Americans contribute 23% less to the adverse impact of climate change but bear 21% more of the harms when compared to other racial groups.

Across the country, African American communities face more dangerously hot days (temperatures above 105 degrees Fahrenheit) than other communities. A study estimated that on average, counties with higher numbers of African-Americans living in them had two to three more days of dangerous heat per year. That number could increase by 10-times by the year 2050. African-Americans are twice as likely to die from dangerous heat compared to other groups.

Moms Clean Air Force works to inform local, state, and federal elected officials about the importance of clean energy electric school buses. We lift this issue up through public information opportunities such as the April 22 Earth Day Event sponsored by 9 Georgia Climate Organizations, “Celebrate the Earth & Clean Buses for Kids” and a family-friendly Earth Day Rally of about 1000 people with free food, live music, yard games at Liberty Plaza on Saturday, April 23, 2022.

WIB: What’s the significance of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and its $5 billion investment in clean school buses?

AEC: Moms Clean Air Force advocated for and celebrated the unprecedented investment of $5 billion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Law passed in November 2021 to support electric school buses. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is important because it will provide up to $5 Billion to local school districts to acquire electric school buses, and the charging stations, and infrastructure needed to implement the conversion to clean energy electric school buses. The Environmental Protection Agency has announced it will be issuing guidelines next week explaining how to access these funds.

Ahead of this announcement, Moms Clean Air Force encourages parents to get ready for this new electric school bus funding. 

Step number one: Read up on electric school buses, learn about school transportation in your district, and reach out to your school district leaders to alert them to this upcoming opportunity.

These are five resources parents can use to get started on the road to electric school buses: 

1. EPA: EPA’s Clean School Bus program will distribute up to $5 billion over the next 5 years for electric school buses. Learn more about their program and how to get this funding on the EPA website. Sign up for Clean School Bus Program news, so you can get updates from EPA on the funding program; rollout is expected in April 2022. Sign up for future webinars, and learn from past events.

2. Alliance for Electric School Buses: The Alliance for Electric School Buses is a coalition of organizations, including Moms Clean Air Force, whose mission is to electrify the nation’s school bus fleet and prioritize the highest-need school districts in the most polluted areas — which, as data shows, are proportionately low-income communities and communities of color — while creating good-paying careers in manufacturing and deployment. The Alliance has compiled several key resources for school districts and advocates.

3. World Resources Institute: The World Resources Institute (WRI) has an Electric School Bus Initiative that provides several valuable resources and is supporting technical assistance for schools. See their webinar series for a range of perspectives and advice on electric school buses. This report, from February 2022, shows where electric school buses are currently in use or on order, in every state across the country.

4. VEIC: Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC) is a non-profit with experience implementing electric school bus programs. Their electric school bus resources include several fact sheets that can help school districts and advocates get started on making the switch to electric buses.

5. CALSTART: If you are looking for a simple resource to share with your school district officials about electric school buses, see this fact sheet from the transportation nonprofit CALSTART: Get On the Bus: a 7-Step Checklist for School Districts to Transition to Electric School Buses.