The Covid Funding Prize opens a door to improve air quality in schools

Many schools in the United States were in dire need of upgrades long before the Covid-19 epidemic reduced the importance of indoor ventilation to reduce the spread of infectious diseases – burdened by leaking pipes, molds and old heating systems.

The average US school building is 50 years old, and many schools are more than a century old.

Thus, one can assume that school districts across the country would welcome the opportunity created by the billions of dollars of federal covid-relief money available to upgrade heating and air-conditioning systems and improve air quality and filtration in K-12 schools.

But a report released this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that most U.S. public schools have not invested heavily in improving indoor ventilation and filtration since the outbreak began. Instead, the most frequently reported strategies for improving airflow and reducing coveted risks were significantly lower budgets, such as moving out of classroom activities and opening windows and doors when deemed safe.

The CDC report, based on a representative sample of public schools in the country, found that less than 40% had replaced or upgraded their HVAC systems since the outbreak began. Even fewer people are using high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, classroom filters (28%), or fans to increase the efficiency of window openings (37%).

Both the CDC and the White House have emphasized internal ventilation as a powerful weapon in the fight to contain covid. Congress has approved billions of dollars in funding for public and private schools that could be used for a wide range of covid-related responses. Such as providing mental health services, masks, air filters, new HVAC systems, or tutoring backward children.

Among the huge funding vessels for the upgrade are: 2020 13 billion for schools under the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act; Additional $ 54 billion approved for school use in December 2020; And 21 122 billion for schools from the 2021 American Rescue Plan.

“Improved ventilation helps reduce the spread of Covid-19, as well as other infectious diseases such as influenza,” said Catherine Raspberry, head of the adolescent and school health department at the CDC’s National Center for the Prevention of HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB. . “Investments made now can lead to long-term health improvements.”

Plenty of data shows that improving ventilation in schools is beneficial beyond Covid. Indoor air quality is associated with improved math and reading; Greater ability to focus; Less symptoms of asthma and respiratory disease; And less absence. 1 in 13 people in the United States has asthma, which is more likely to miss school days than any other chronic illness.

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

Clean-air advocates say the epidemic fund provides a generational opportunity for students and staff with more allergies and asthma to breathe more air, as well as helping schools across California and drought-stricken western climates. Smoke from fires is a growing threat to respiration.

“This is a huge deal for schools,” said Anisa Heming, director of the US Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools, a nonprofit that promotes ways to improve indoor air quality. “We haven’t had that much money from the federal government for school facilities for the last 100 years.”

Still, many school administrators are unaware that federal funding is available to improve ventilation, according to a survey published by the Green School Center in May. According to the survey, about a quarter of school officials said they did not have the resources to improve ventilation, while another quarter were “uncertain” about whether funding was available, according to the survey.

Even before the Covid airflow improved, according to a 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office, an estimated 36,000 schools needed to have their HVAC systems updated or replaced.

According to the 2021 report of the Lancet Covid-19 Commission, most schools do not meet the minimum air quality standards. A pre-epidemic survey of Texas schools found that about 90% of people had excessive levels of carbon dioxide, while people exhaled; High concentrations in the air can cause drowsiness, as well as decrease concentration and memory.

In Baltimore, Philadelphia and Detroit – many of the older buildings lack air conditioning – all schools have been closed this spring due to overheating. And a year before the Covid epidemic hit, schools in the states, including Alabama, Idaho, Michigan, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas, were closed due to the flu outbreak.

Many schools have been slow to spend Covid relief dollars because of the time-consuming process of hiring contractors and getting state or federal approval, says Jordan of FutureAid.

In the first year of the epidemic, many schools hired custodial staff to remove surfaces frequently throughout the day. In Seattle, district staff are asked to work overtime to help clean up that, said Seattle Public Schools resource specialist Ian Brown.

Some school officials say they are under pressure from parents to continue spending money on disposable wipes and surface cleaning, although science has shown that the coronavirus is mainly spread through the air, according to a report by the Center for Green Schools. Parents and teachers sometimes believe more in such obvious steps than in improving ventilation, which is hard to see.

And not all schools have wisely spent federal funds. A 2021 KHN investigation found that more than 2,000 schools across the country have used epidemic relief funds to purchase air-purification devices using technology that has been shown to be a potential source of ineffective or dangerous by-products.

School districts will have to spend at least 20% of American Rescue Plan aid on academic recovery – such as summer schools, instructional materials and teacher salaries – leading some schools to prioritize those needs before ventilation, Jordan said. But he noted that a FutureEd analysis of the school district’s spending plan indicates that the districts intend to spend about $ 10 billion in the coming years from funding about $ 10 billion for ventilation and air filtration, with a budget of about $ 400 per student.

Los Angeles schools, for example, have budgeted 50 million to provide 55,000 portable commercial-grade air cleaners 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 has installed 4,000 air quality sensors in classrooms and offices that can be monitored remotely, allowing facility managers to respond quickly to ventilation problems.

Albemarle County Public School in Virginia, meanwhile, has purchased a “medical-grade” air purifier for the isolated room in the school nurse’s office, where children with covid symptoms wait for a pickup. These units are equipped with HEPA filtration and internal ultraviolet rays to kill germs and are powerful enough to clean all the air in an isolated room every three minutes.

But effective solutions do not have to be high technology.

Seattle public schools use relatively inexpensive hand-hold sensors to assess air quality in each classroom, Brown said. The district then purchased portable air cleaners for classrooms with inadequate ventilation rates.

Replacing the Central Air System is a large construction project that could easily top $ 1 million per school, with standard HEPA purifiers – proven to be effective in removing coronavirus from the air – costing around $ 300 to $ 400.

According to the CDC, about 70% of schools have at least inspected their heating and ventilation systems since the outbreak, the first step in repairs.

Engineers in Ann Arbor, Michigan have “inspected every mechanical ventilation in the school district, opened every unit and inspected to make sure the fans and pumps and dampers were working properly,” said Emil Louzana, Capital’s executive director. Project for Ann Arbor Public Schools.

“It’s something that school districts usually don’t have the funds to take a deep dive into,” Louzana said. “It’s unfortunate that it took us an epidemic to get here, but we’re in a much better place today with indoor air quality.”

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