Covid funding awards open door to improving air quality in schools

Many American schools were in dire need of upgrades – plagued by leaking pipes, mold and outdated heating systems – long before the covid-19 pandemic drew attention to the importance of indoor ventilation to reduce the spread of infectious diseases.

The average American school building is 50 years old, and many schools are over a century old.

So, one would assume that school districts across the country would welcome the opportunity created by the billions of dollars in federal covid relief funds available to upgrade heating and cooling systems and improve air quality. and Filtration in K-12 Schools.

But a published report this month, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most U.S. public schools have made no major investment in improving indoor ventilation and filtration since the pandemic began. Instead, the most frequently reported strategies to improve air circulation and reduce covid risk were particularly low-budget, such as moving classroom activities outside and opening windows and doors, if they are considered safe.

The CDC report, based on a representative sample of public schools nationwide, found that less than 40% had replaced or upgraded their HVAC systems since the pandemic began. Even fewer used high-efficiency particulate filters, or HEPA, in classrooms (28%) or fans to increase the efficiency of having windows open (37%).

Both the CDC and the White House have pointed to indoor ventilation as a powerful weapon in the battle to contain covid. Congress has approved billions of dollars in funding for public and private schools that can be used for a wide range of covid-related responses — such as providing mental health services, face masks, air filters, new HVAC systems, or tutoring for children who have fallen behind.

Among the important funding pots for upgrades: $13 billion for schools in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act of 2020; an additional amount of $54 billion approved in December 2020 for school use; and $122 billion for US bailout schools 2021.

“Improved ventilation helps reduce the spread of covid-19, as well as other infectious diseases such as influenza,” said Catherine Rasberry, branch chief for adolescent and school health at the CDC’s National Center for HIV, viral hepatitis, STDs and tuberculosis prevention. . “Investments made now can lead to lasting improvements in health.”

A wealth of data shows that improving ventilation in schools has benefits far beyond covid. Good indoor air quality is associated with improvements in math and reading; greater ability to concentrate; fewer symptoms of asthma and respiratory diseases; and less absenteeism. Nearly one in 13 American children has asthma, leading to no more missed school days than any other chronic disease.

“If you look at the research, it shows that the literal climate of a school — heat, mold, humidity — directly affects learning,” said Phyllis Jordan, associate director of FutureEd, a think tank at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University. .

Clean air advocates say the pandemic funding provides a unique opportunity to make the air more breathable for students and staff with allergies and asthma, as well as help schools California and across the drought-stricken West to deal with the growing threat of smoke inhalation from wildfires.

“It’s a big problem for schools,” said Anisa Heming, director of the Center for Green Schools to the US Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization that promotes ways to improve indoor air quality. “We haven’t had this much money from the federal government for school facilities in the last hundred years.”

Yet many school administrators are unaware that federal funding for ventilation improvements is available, according to a survey published in May by the Center for Green Schools. About a quarter of school officials said they did not have the resources to improve ventilation, while another quarter were ‘unsure’ about the availability of funding, according to the investigation.

Even before Covid brought the issue of improved airflow to light, about 36,000 schools needed to update or replace HVAC systems, according to a 2020 report of the Office of Government Accountability.

Most schools don’t even meet minimum air quality standards, according to a 2021 report of the Lancet Covid-19 Commission. A pre-pandemic study of Texas schools found nearly 90% had excessive levels of carbon dioxide, released when people exhale; high concentrations in the air can cause drowsiness, as well as impair concentration and memory.

Baltimore, Philadelphia and Detroit — cities where many older buildings lack air conditioning — all closed schools this spring due to excessive heat. And a year before the covid pandemic hit, schools in states like Alabama, Idaho, MichiganOklahoma, Tennessee and Texas closed due to flu epidemics.

Many schools have been slow to spend relief funds due to the cumbersome process of hiring contractors and obtaining state or federal approval, FutureEd’s Jordan said.

During the first year of the pandemic, many schools assigned custodial staff to wipe down surfaces frequently throughout the day. In Seattle, the district has asked staff members to work overtime to help with this cleanup, said Ian Brown, resource conservation specialist at Seattle Public Schools.

Some school officials say they feel pressured by parents to keep spending money on disposable wipes and cleaning surfaces, even though science has shown the coronavirus spreads widely through the air, according to the Center’s report. for Green Schools. Parents and teachers sometimes place more faith in visible measures like these than in ventilation improvements that are harder to see.

And not all schools have spent federal funding wisely. A 2021 KHN survey found that more than 2,000 schools across the country have used pandemic relief funds to purchase air-purifying devices that use technology that has proven to be ineffective or a potential source of hazardous by-products.

School districts are required to spend at least 20% of US bailout aid for school resumption — such as summer school, teaching materials and teacher salaries — leading some schools to prioritize to those needs before ventilation, Jordan said. But she noted that a FutureEd Analysis school district spending plans indicated that districts intended to spend nearly $10 billion of the last round of funding on ventilation and air filtration in the coming years, budgeting about $400 $ per student.

Schools in Los Angeles, for example, have budgeted $50 million to provide 55,000 commercial-grade portable air purifiers for classroom use. Durham Public Schools in North Carolina is spending $26 million to update ventilation. Schools in St. Joseph, Missouri, plan to spend more than $20 million to replace aging HVAC systems.

In Boston, the school district installed 4,000 air quality sensors in classrooms and offices that can be monitored remotely, allowing facility managers to respond quickly when ventilation suffers.

Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia, meanwhile, has purchased ‘medical-grade’ air purifiers for isolation rooms in school nurses’ offices, where children with covid symptoms are waiting to be treated. ‘to be taken in hand. These units are equipped with HEPA filtration and interior ultraviolet light to kill germs, and are powerful enough to clean all the air in the isolation rooms every three minutes.

But workable solutions don’t have to be high-tech.

Seattle Public Schools used relatively inexpensive handheld sensors to assess the air quality in every classroom, Brown said. The district then purchased portable air cleaners for classrooms with inadequate ventilation rates.

While replacing a central air system is a major construction project that can easily exceed $1 million per school, quality HEPA purifiers – which have proven effective at suppress coronavirus from the air – run closer to $300-$400.

About 70% of schools have at least inspected their heating and ventilation systems since the pandemic emerged, a key first step to making repairs, according to the CDC.

Engineers in Ann Arbor, Michigan inspected “every mechanical ventilation item in the school district, opening up each unit and inspecting fans, pumps and dampers to make sure they were working properly,” Emile said. Lauzzana, executive director of capital. projects for Ann Arbor public schools.

“It’s just something that school districts don’t normally have the funds to do a deep dive,” Lauzzana said. “It’s unfortunate that it took a pandemic to get us here, but we’re in a much better place with indoor air quality today.”

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