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Don't forget the roof

March 14, 2022
Schools and universities have been focused on building interiors as they work to improve air quality and combat Covid-19, but roof maintenance remains a critical step in provide healthful education facilities.

Because of Covid-19, most of the focus on school facility cleaning and maintenance in the last two years has been directed to building interiors, where the dangerous virus could spread and threaten the health of students and staff.

But the attention and resources devoted to improving the conditions inside school facilities does not mean that schools and universities can ignore building exteriors. Keeping roofs well-maintained and free from damage is critical to providing safe and healthful learning spaces. A leaking roof in a school can not only cause physical damage to the structure, but also create conditions for mold growth, which can lead to poor indoor air quality and health problems for students and staff.

A basic step in making sure school roofs are free from leaks and other damage is to conduct regular inspections. Roofing experts recommend that schools should inspect their roofs twice a year—once in the fall and once in the spring.

Upgrades needed

The Government Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report in June 2020 that identified numerous deficiencies in the infrastructure of the nation’s public schools. After conducting surveys of school districts and site visits, the GAO estimated that in 27.7% of the nation’s public school districts, at least half of the schools needed roofing updated or replaced.

“Based on our school district survey, we estimate that...about 28,000 schools need to update or replace roofing,” the GAO stated.

Lack of funding to address all of a school system’s facility shortcomings has been a constant challenge for administrators, and they often must resort to deferring maintenance on roofs to devote resources to more urgent infrastructure problems.

“Of the 55 schools we visited, 18 had problems with their roofing, according to district and school officials.,” the GAO said. “Roofing problems ranged from small leaks to larger issues requiring a costly replacement. For example, officials in a Rhode Island district said that replacing the roofing at one school would likely cost about $3 million. These officials said [that] because the district did not have the funds to replace it, they instead planned to spend $20,000 on temporary fixes, with the hope that these fixes would last until funding was available for a full replacement.”

The need for additional funding to address roofing deficiencies was answered to some extent in 2021 with the creation of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund. Congress has allocated billions of dollars to help districts recover from Covid-related setbacks and carry out facility improvements that will prevent or deter the spread of Covid-19 and other diseases in schools.


Roof damage that goes undetected or not repaired may lead to serious damage to a school facility. Because most people in a school building are unlikely to have access to the roof or be able to observe conditions on a regular basis, needed school roof upgrades may take a back seat to facility problems that are too visible to ignore. Roof repairs may slide quietly into the pile of deferred maintenance projects that are the bane of most districts

That’s why experts urge schools to conduct semi-annual roof inspections so that deterioration or damage can be discovered and dealt with before problems seep inside the building and cause major facility problems.

“Generally, roof inspections should be made twice each year, once in the spring and once in the fall,” states the Utah Board of Education’s School Construction Resource Manual. “Additional roof inspections should be made after major storms, when vandalism relating to the roof is suspected, or after any rooftop equipment service or installation.”

  • The starting point of a roof inspection should be the interior of the building, the manual says.
  • Check interior walls and ceilings for signs of water and staining.

After inspecting the interior, check the exterior walls and overhangs for moisture, cracks, and signs of movement. Then, inspect the roof by checking the following components:

  • Cap flashings
  • Edge metal
  • Base flashings
  • Penetrations
  • Field membrane
  • Other components as required

During inspection, carry out routine maintenance:

  • Pick up and properly dispose of debris and organic plant material and repair any damage.
  • Clean drains, gutters, down spouts, and scuppers; cut back tree limbs.
  • Aggregate surfacing that has been displaced by wind, ice, snow, or water flow should be redistributed by using a push broom. Aggregate protects the roof membrane from ultraviolet degradation and must stay in place.
  • Inspect duct work, which often leaks and causes a good roof and flashing assembly to fail.

Schools should take these steps to prolong  the service life of roofs.

  • Limit and control roof access; walk in areas that will minimize damage to the roof membrane. Use designated roof walkways if they are provided.
  • Take immediate action to repair leaks and damage.

The addition of penetrations or equipment to a roof system should only be done in collaboration with a professional roofing consultant and a structural

engineer, the manual says. How and where equipment is placed is critical to the roofing system, the structural system, and the state building and fire code.


Green On Top

As schools and universities have become more committed to environmental sustainability, many institutions have installed green roofs atop some of their buildings.

Covering the surface of a roof with plants and vegetation results in environmental and educational benefits for students and staff.

The New York City Education Department’s Guide to Green Roofs details some of the benefits.

  • Stormwater management:  Rainwater that is absorbed and held by a green roof’s planting substrate (soil or other planting medium) will typically not enter the city’s sewer system at all. It will irrigate the plants, and will evaporate into the atmosphere, providing a cooling effect. When there is more rain than can be held by the green roof, the roof’s existing drainage system conveys this excess to the sewer system.
  • Roof life extension: Roofing material exposed to the heat and ultraviolet rays of the sun is under constant thermal stress, and will, over time, deteriorate, crack and leak. A green roof includes a layer of soil, which protects the roofing membrane from the direct effects of the sun and lessens the temperature fluctuations between day and night. A green roof system tends to extend the useful life of the roofing membrane.
  • Reduction of the “heat island effect:” A vegetative green roof minimizes the trapping and retaining of the sun’s heat that is the hallmark of dark-colored impervious roofing material. This “heat island effect” can be reduced by the evaporative cooling that occurs with a green roof. As a result, a green roof reduces the summer cooling load for a building, and the energy cost for operating the cooling equipment. Reduced energy demand results in a decrease in air pollutant and greenhouse gas emissions associated with energy production, thus contributing to improved air quality.
  • Improved air quality: Air quality is affected by heat waves; as the temperature rises, the pollutants that contribute to ozone depletion are increased because of the increased demand for cooling power. A green roof, due to its natural cooling effect, reduces warming trends and ozone depletion. The net result is improved air quality and better quality of life for all, in particular people who suffer from respiratory diseases.
  • Educational opportunities: A teacher might bring students to the roof to demonstrate the roof’s environmental benefits (evaporative cooling contrasted with the “heat island” of a non-vegetated dark, impervious roof). 
About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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