Funding for school facility improvements a requirement for safe reopening

Elizabeth Beardsley is the senior policy counsel at the U.S. Green Building Council. Scott Brown is president of the National Council on School Facilities. Mary Filardo is chair of the 21st Century School Fund, [Re]Build America’s School Infrastructure Coalition. David Terry is executive director of the National Association of State Energy Officials.

Before the pandemic, the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated a stunning 41% of America’s school districts needed to replace or update heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in at least half of their schools  representing 36,000 schools nationwide.

During the coronavirus pandemic, these building systems have become essential in helping to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, yet the focus has been on masks, cleaning, spacing of desks and other steps. School facilities also require attention, and right now, they are not ready to welcome back students, teachers and staff.

Public health experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the Harvard School of Public Health; the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, and others have emphasized the need for bringing in outside air and improving ventilation and filtration to dilute and avoid circulating particles containing the virus.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) also released guidance for schools to reduce the risk of spreading airborne pathogens while meeting indoor air quality standards that support the health and performance of students and staff. Readying these building systems, along with the physical distancing requirements, are among the most challenging issues school leaders face.

An immediate injection of federal funding for school repairs is critical for reopening. School facilities are historically funded through local governments, which are already facing extreme budget challenges. School districts, especially those in disadvantaged areas, need support for these upgrades in order to prioritize health and safety.

With the next relief package in negotiations, Congress should allocate $10 billion for these facility repairs and $25 million for technical assistance on ventilation and indoor air quality through state energy offices. This support is necessary so schools can focus their education relief funds on essential operational adjustments — from scheduling, staffing and transportation to technology, personal protective equipment and cleaning.

One school district facilities manager noted that of the $2.2 million his district received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, about one-third was spent exclusively on masks to provide one mask per day per student or staff, for one year, to the tune of $700,000. With needed spending on cleaning, technology and social distancing, it is clear that schools won’t have much left to correct problems in the buildings they’ll be spending their time in.

Several states have already realized schools need this kind of help. The State of Vermont carved out a part of the CARES I general relief fund — not its education funds — to offer schools funding for indoor air quality projects such as repairing, maintaining and upgrading HVAC systems. Within two weeks, about two-thirds of Vermont’s schools signed up.

The latest Republican relief proposal, led by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), included ventilation improvements as an allowed use of education relief funds. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) also highlighted ventilation needs in his remarks at the House Committee on Education and Labor hearing on school reopenings, and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) has been keenly engaged on school issues.

Building on discussions, separate aid for school facility repairs will go further toward ensuring schools have fresh air by addressing HVAC repairs, upgrading to high-grade MERV13 or HEPA filters, installing carbon dioxide monitors that track building ventilation performance, and other critical facility repairs.

For smaller school districts with less in-house expertise, technical support is necessary for maintaining and modifying systems to meet indoor environmental quality recommendations. A relatively small amount of funding to State Energy Offices (SEOs), with deep expertise at the nexus of energy systems and indoor air quality, will help address these challenges, and applying technical guidance from experts at ASHRAE and Harvard can ensure taxpayer funds protect children and teachers while improving learning environments.

Looking long-term, proposals like the Reopening and Rebuilding America’s Schools Act (RASA), supported by Rep. Scott and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), outlines a five-year plan to reinvest in school facilities, and the Open Back Better Act, supported by Rep. Lisa Blunt-Rochester (D-Del.) and Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), leverages federal funds with private finance to deliver resilience and energy updates to schools and other critical facilities. Each of these are fundamental parts of providing communities with healthy, safe and resilient school buildings.

Funding school repairs and upgrades is also an economic priority, contributing to creating jobs in construction, trades and the energy efficiency services sector. Local job creation in energy efficiency is an urgent need, given that an estimated 360,000 workers in the sector have lost their jobs since the beginning of the pandemic.

Federal funding for school facilities is something both parties can get behind — and should — if the goal is to effectively support public health, create jobs and invest in our children.

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