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After years of neglect, school districts and local governments are finally investing in the HVAC systems at their facilities. The coronavirus pandemic made this a top priority, although numerous studies have shown for years that indoor air quality impacts student performance. Now, one state governor wants to keep the money flowing with grants marked for HVAC upgrades.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont proposed legislation to establish a grant program to assist public school districts in paying for HVAC and other IAQ improvements to school buildings. He said the program is needed to help schools make necessary infrastructure upgrades in response to the health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ned Lamont.

GRANT IDEA: Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont is proposing a grant program for schools to upgrade their HVAC systems. (Courtesy of the State of Connecticut)

To launch the program, the governor’s budget proposal includes an investment of $90 million in funding that Connecticut received from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). This act was approved by Congress last year to assist in the country’s recovery from the pandemic. The governor stressed that this initial allocation would be the first investment in the program, and additional rounds of funding can invested as needed.

“One thing the COVID-19 pandemic exposed is that many school buildings in our state, particularly those that are of a certain age, are in serious need of air quality improvements,” Lamont said. “Some people may erroneously think that heating and cooling systems are only about temperature control, but modernized ventilation systems provide an important public health function that filtrate the air and reduce airborne contaminants, including particles containing viruses. I strongly urge lawmakers to approve this proposal so that we can begin releasing funds to school districts and make these much-needed HVAC upgrades.”


Long-Standing Demand for Better HVAC

The proposed program would be administered by the Connecticut Department of Administrative Services. It requires municipalities to provide matching grants to fund the project costs. Lamont has directed the Administrative Services Dept. to develop the proposed program in coordination with the State Department of Education, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, and the Department of Public Health. Examples of eligible projects include replacing, upgrading, and reporting HVAC components and controls, as well as installing air conditioning or ventilation systems.

Teachers’ unions have long advocated for improved HVAC in schools. Connecticut education Association President Kate Dias said she worked in a building constructed during the ‘50s that lacked air conditioning and adequate ventilation. Her second floor room would regularly top 90 degrees.

“Given the excellence of educators in our state, I love the idea that our buildings could match that level of excellence,” Dias said.

Improving filtration and ventilation is part of the Biden Administration’s recently released “National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan.” The plan calls for the federal government to provide a Clean Air in Buildings Checklist that all buildings can use to improve indoor ventilation and air filtration. The government will encourage uptake of ventilation improvements and provide technical assistance that encourages schools, public buildings, and state, local, and Tribal governments to make ventilation improvements and upgrades using American Rescue Plan Act funds.

ARPA funds are already being used for HVAC projects across the country. Some school administrations are running into problems, however, due to rising costs for parts and equipment. A district in Missouri found itself short $6.5 million on an HVAC upgrade project due to rising costs for parts and equipment.


Science Supports Spending

Taxpayers have shown a willingness to support HVAC upgrades. Voters in Camden County, New Jersey, voted overwhelmingly in favor of a $10 million bond issuance to pay for upgrades at the Eastern Camden County Regional High School District. The cost is split between three cities in the county and the state Department of Education. Locals pick up $6 million of the project’s cost, with the state covering the rest.

The project includes new energy-efficient unit ventilators with separate individual condensing units that will allow for staging of the implementation/installation of the units on a yearly basis or in phases, according to the district’s website. This system results in a large quantity of smaller units, and these can be located on grade inside courtyards or outside on grade or on existing roofs. The system uses small equipment sizes and types (small condensing units) that are normally associated with the small tonnage market, making replacement equipment readily available.

There’s plenty of science backing the investment in HVAC for schools. For example, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a report last spring about the efficacy of HVAC improvements to mitigate the spread of coronavirus. The study used data from Georgia elementary schools that opened for in-person learning during fall 2020

CDC and the Georgia Department of Public Health assessed the impact of school-level prevention strategies on incidence of COVID-19 among students and staff members before the availability of COVID-19 vaccines. Among 169 K-5 schools that participated in a survey on prevention strategies and reported COVID-19 cases during November 16–December 11, 2020, incidence was 3.08 cases among students and staff members per 500 enrolled students. Adjusting for county-level incidence, COVID-19 incidence was 39% lower in schools that improved ventilation, compared with schools that did not use these prevention strategies. Improved ventilation slightly outperformed mask usage, which was attribute for a 37% decline.

In schools that improved ventilation through dilution methods alone, COVID-19 incidence was 35% lower, whereas in schools that combined dilution methods with filtration, incidence was 48% lower. Increasing ventilation in some cases was as simple as keeping doors and windows open and using fans to increase air flow from open windows. In rooms that are difficult to ventilate, the CDC’s study recommends installation of HEPA filters or ultraviolet lights should be considered.