Covid funding opens door to improving air quality in schools

Many American schools were in dire need of upgrades — burdened by leaky pipes, mold and outdated heating systems — long before the Covid-19 pandemic drew attention to the importance of indoor ventilation in curbing the spread of infectious diseases.

The average school building in the US is 50 years old and many schools date back more than a century.

So one might assume that school districts across the country would welcome the opportunity created by billions of dollars in 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 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that most public schools in the US have not made major investments in improving indoor ventilation and filtration since the start of the pandemic. Instead, the most commonly reported strategies to improve airflow and reduce covid risk have been particularly low-budget, such as moving classroom activities outside and opening windows and doors if deemed safe.

The CDC report, based on a representative sample of public schools in the country, found that fewer than 40% had replaced or upgraded their HVAC systems since the start of the pandemic. Even fewer used highly efficient particulate air or HEPA filters in classrooms (28%) or fans to increase the effectiveness of opening windows (37%).

Both the CDC and the White House have emphasized indoor ventilation as a powerful weapon in the fight to contain Covid. Congress has approved billions in funding for public and private schools that can be used for a wide variety 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 significant funding pots for upgrades: $13 billion for schools in the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act; an additional $54 billion approved in December 2020 for use by schools; and $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 like the flu,” said Catherine Rasberry, division chief of adolescent and school health at the CDC’s National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention. † “Investments made now can lead to lasting health improvements.”

A wealth of data shows that improving ventilation in schools offers benefits that go well beyond Covid. Good indoor air quality is associated with improvements in math and reading; greater ability to focus; fewer symptoms of asthma and respiratory diseases; and less absenteeism. Nearly 1 in 13 American children has asthma, leading to more missed school days than any other chronic illness.

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

Clean air advocates said the pandemic’s funding provides a unique opportunity to make air more breathable for students and staff with allergies and asthma, and to help reopen schools in California and the drought-ravaged West. increasing threat of smoke inhalation from wildfires.

“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 gotten that much money from the federal government for school facilities in the last hundred years.”

Still, many school administrators are unaware that federal funding for ventilation improvements is available, according to a study 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” if funding was available, according to the survey.

Even before Covid raised the issue of improving airflow, an estimated 36,000 schools needed to update or replace HVAC systems, according to a 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office.

Most schools don’t even meet minimum air quality standards, according to a 2021 report from the Lancet Covid-19 Commission. A pre-pandemic study of schools in Texas found that nearly 90% had excessive amounts of carbon dioxide, which was 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 don’t have air conditioning — closed all schools this spring due to the extreme heat. And a year before the Covid pandemic hit, schools in states like Alabama, Idaho, Michigan, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas were closing due to flu outbreaks.

Many schools have been slow to spend covid aid dollars because of the time-consuming process of hiring contractors and obtaining state or federal approval, FutureEd’s Jordan said.

In the first year of the pandemic, many schools assigned daycare staff to sweep surfaces regularly throughout the day. In Seattle, the district asked staffers to work overtime to help with cleaning, said Ian Brown, a resource conservation specialist at Seattle Public Schools.

Some school officials say they feel pressured by parents to continue spending money on disposable wipes and surface cleaning, even though science has shown that the coronavirus is largely airborne, according to the Center for Green Schools report. Parents and teachers sometimes have more confidence in these kinds of eye-catching measures than in more difficult to see ventilation improvements.

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

School districts must spend at least 20% of the U.S. bailout’s aid on academic recovery — such as summer school, teaching materials and teacher salaries — leading some schools to prioritize those needs before ventilation, Jordan said. But she noted that a FutureEd analysis of school districts’ spending plans indicated that districts plan to spend nearly $10 billion from the latest funding round on ventilation and air filtration in the coming years, with a budget of about $400 per student.

For example, schools in Los Angeles have budgeted $50 million to provide 55,000 portable commercial air purifiers for classroom use. Durham Public Schools in North Carolina spends $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, so facility managers can respond quickly when ventilation suffers.

Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia, meanwhile, bought “medical” air purifiers for isolation rooms in the offices of school nurses, where children with Covid symptoms await collection. Equipped with HEPA filtration and internal ultraviolet light to kill germs, these units are powerful enough to clean all the air in the isolation chambers every three minutes.

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

Seattle Public Schools used relatively inexpensive hand-held sensors to assess the air quality in each classroom, Brown said. The district then purchased portable air purifiers for classrooms with inadequate ventilation.

While replacing a central air system is a major construction project that could easily cost more than $1 million per school, high-performance HEPA purifiers — which have proven effective in removing the coronavirus from the air — run closer to $300 to $400.

About 70% of schools have at least inspected their heating and ventilation systems since the pandemic broke out, an important first step toward making repairs, the CDC said.

Engineers in Ann Arbor, Michigan, have “inspected every piece of mechanical ventilation in the school district, opening up every unit and inspecting the fans, pumps and mufflers to make sure they are working properly,” said Emile Lauzzana, executive director of Capital Projects for Ann Arbor Public Schools.

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

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operational programs of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.


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