Many school leaders are using federal funding to repair school facilities, especially ventilation systems, to improve air quality and reduce the spread of Covid-19

How schools can improve infrastructure and air quality as masks come off

Many school leaders are using federal funding to repair school facilities, especially ventilation systems, to improve air quality and reduce the spread of Covid-19

As the CDC shifts its recommendations and schoolchildren are no longer required to wear masks in many parts of the country, questions remain about how aging school infrastructure can support the health and safety needs–including air quality–that accompany reduced precautions.

The March 2021 American Rescue Plan brought widespread economic aid to address such issues, with $122.8 billion specifically earmarked for K-12 districts, but this funding has an expiration date. How can school districts best act now to create healthier schools and repair crumbling infrastructure before the first round of funding expires in September 2022?

Many school districts nationwide have been using stimulus dollars to rethink infrastructure, classroom design, and building upgrades. According to the U.S. Department of Education, one of the most popular uses of federal funding has been repairing school facilities, especially ventilation systems, to improve air quality and reduce the spread of Covid-19.

This may be the first time they’ve had access to this sort of capital in years, so prioritizing the right upgrades and investments at the outset will be vital to maximizing the initial impact of new technology and systems. 

Improving air quality systems is priority #1

The pandemic has underscored the importance of increased airflow and circulation within buildings to mitigate any spread of bacteria. An upgraded ventilation system increases Covid safety by creating a steady current of airflow that removes a portion of aerosols from the air.

A University of Central Florida study found that combining a ventilation system with an air filter could reduce the risk of infection by up to 50 percent compared to a classroom with no ventilation. The use of HEPA filters has proved effective at capturing 99.7 percent of human-generated viral particles according to an ASHRAE report.

Indoor air quality (IAQ) matters, especially as mask requirements fade away. Infrastructure improvement projects can significantly improve indoor air quality, help schools reduce their carbon footprint, and improve energy efficiency. Optimizing buildings for better IAQ requires HVAC systems to work harder. To prevent this from leading to higher energy bills, schools will have to optimize for energy efficiency. Modern, high-efficiency HVAC systems feature advanced monitoring capabilities and connected products that allow them to operate more efficiently. This means they can do more with less, leading to cost and energy savings versus older equipment.

Selecting the best budget-friendly infrastructure upgrades

The 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure found that 53 percent of public school districts need to update or replace multiple building systems. Big ticket items like upgrading to high-efficiency HVAC equipment or modernizing building management systems (BMS) are crucial in the long term but may seem like an intimidating place to begin. If a full upgrade to a modern BMS is too daunting for a school, smaller wins can still make a big impact. One such upgrade is adding occupancy and VOC sensors to detect overcrowding, stale air, and classrooms needing targeted ventilation increases. These sensors allow for targeted, effective increases in energy use to protect the health and safety of students and teachers. Even something as simple as pushing setpoints outside typical ranges on nights and weekends, especially during extreme heat or cold, can save 8 to 10% on energy costs. Many of these efficiency upgrades also qualify for tax incentives that can dramatically speed up return on investment.

Making infrastructure upgrades a reality

Covid-19 has created an especially tricky, stressful environment for school administrators who must meet evolving mandates around air quality, water quality, and reducing pollutants to maintain a healthy school environment. On top of that, navigating the process to secure new funding opportunities and use the money according to the grant requirements can be quite complicated. Here’s how to make ambitious infrastructure upgrades a reality despite these challenges. 

First, start by creating partnerships early in the designing and implementation planning stages to be intentional and strategic about how the project is financed, implemented, and maintained. For example, outside experts that have experience navigating the complex application and approval processes for state and federal funding can help to secure funding, find opportunities, and implement projects that adhere to government requirements.

Second, funds should be viewed as a piece of a long-term fiscal plan over immediate cash flow. How can current funds be used to support the campus demands of tomorrow, such as an increase in enrollment? By prioritizing infrastructure improvements that offer flexibility and real-time control, administrators will be equipped to respond to unforeseen challenges quickly. 

Lastly, it is crucial to prepare contingency plans so schools aren’t reliant on stimulus funding alone. With ongoing resource constraints, alternative financing opportunities have become necessary for critical infrastructure upgrades.

One example of this is energy performance contracting, which helps to reduce energy and operational costs by 20 to 30% while addressing a backlog of deferred maintenance and improvement projects. Schools should also remember to check Omnia, a cooperative purchasing mechanism where the vast majority of US schools are already members. This streamlines the procurement process – allowing school leaders to easily find vendors for stimulus-fueled system upgrades that are already approved – thus reducing and simplifying the timeline for awarding a project.  

Schools rarely see the funding influx like that of the American Rescue Plan combined with the March 2020 CARES Act and the December 2020 CRRSA. By acting now to find ways to best put the money to use, school districts can create healthy classrooms that keep children learning safely while also modernizing facilities and upgrading technology that leads to significant energy-efficiency savings down the road.

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