Leveraging Federal Relief Funds to Create Healthier Schools

Wednesday, June 9, 2021
Tobie Bernstein

Senior Attorney; Director, Indoor Environments and Green Buildings Program

As summer approaches, school systems throughout the United States are planning for in-person and hybrid learning next fall. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Congress has appropriated $190 billion to assist those efforts; the recent American Rescue Plan Act alone provides around $122 billion for PK-12 public education.

Apple on stack of booksAmong the Act’s many provisions governing how relief funds are to be distributed and spent, one paragraph offers a rare opportunity to leverage substantial federal funds to improve environmental quality in schools. The Act allows funds to be used for:

“Inspection, testing, maintenance, repair, replacement, and upgrade projects to improve the indoor air quality in school facilities, including mechanical and non-mechanical heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, filtering, purification and other air cleaning. . . .”

Funds may also be directed toward “school facility repairs and improvements to enable schools to reduce the risk of virus transmission and exposure to environmental health hazards, and to support student health needs.”

The pandemic has led to broad recognition of the central role of indoor air quality in keeping schools safe and advancing the core mission of our education system. But public health and building science experts have understood for years the importance of adequate ventilation and filtration in improving the indoor environment and supporting learning and productivity—not only for reducing airborne virus transmission, but also for reducing exposure to air pollutants.

One of the most common and serious indoor air pollutants is particulate matter (PM), which can enter buildings from vehicles, industry, wildfires, and other sources. A vast and growing body of research links particulate matter—especially fine particles (PM2.5)—to cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, cancer, and other systemic health effects. And the pandemic has laid bare the fact that the impacts of air pollution in the United States are not distributed equally. People of color are both more likely to be exposed to air pollution and more likely to suffer from underlying health conditions, such as asthma, that increase their vulnerability to the harms of such exposure.

A study published in April added sobering evidence of these disparities, finding that people of color are “disproportionately and systemically” harmed by PM2.5 from nearly every source category in the United States. In its 2021 “State of the Air” report on ozone and particle pollution, the American Lung Association noted that nationwide, “[p]eople of color are more than three times more likely to be breathing the most polluted air than white people” are.

Studies demonstrate that high-efficiency filtration can be very effective at removing these harmful particles from indoor air. Using pandemic relief funding to improve filtration, ventilation, and related environmental conditions can thus yield public health and education benefits for decades to come. Under the American Rescue Plan, school districts are allowed, but are not required, to use the funds for facility improvements. States and local education agencies are faced with difficult decisions in allocating these dollars among many competing issues related to reopening, including providing mental health services, addressing the academic impact of lost instructional time, and purchasing technology.

Vermont is one state that has established school ventilation as a priority for using relief funds. The state legislature recently enacted H. 315 (Act 9), which appropriated $15 million from the American Rescue Plan to support the state’s School Indoor Air Quality Grant Program. Established in 2020, the program provides grants to K-12 schools to repair, maintain, and upgrade HVAC systems consistent with national guidelines. The National Council on School Facilities recommends that states allocate at least 1% of their state reservation funding toward state-level functions related to school facilities, and the group urges school districts to allocate at least 15% of their relief funding for school facilities.

These facility repairs and upgrades are urgently needed, especially in low-wealth school districts. In a 2020 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that about one-half of all public school districts need to update or replace multiple building systems or features in their schools, including an estimated 41% of districts that need to update or replace HVAC systems in at least one-half of their schools (36,000 schools nationwide). Recently, the U.S. Green Building Council and ASHRAE surveyed school districts to learn about the barriers they have faced in upgrading ventilation and filtration during the pandemic; the most common barriers were cost and the fact that school buildings simply were not designed to support the recommended ventilation and filtration strategies.

The substantial federal infusion of relief funding for school reopening is thus an important opportunity to improve school building conditions, but it is only a start. And inadequate ventilation and filtration are not the only facility problems that need attention. Renewed attention from every level of government is needed to craft longer-term policies and programs that yield sustained and equitable investment in school facilities that can support health and learning during the pandemic and beyond.

ELI’s Indoor Environments program has worked to advance healthier schools, child care, homes, and other buildings for over 20 years. To see our policy resources, visit www.eli.org/buildings.