- The U.S. Department of Energy announced Tuesday that the nation’s highest-need districts can now apply for $84.5 million in federal funding for school infrastructure improvements under two new programs established through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021.
- Some $80 million in Renew America’s Schools grants aim to support rural or high-poverty schools with energy upgrades, such as new heating, ventilation and air conditioning, to support healthier learning environments and reduce utility costs, DOE said. The $4.5 million Energy Champions Leading the Advancement of Sustainable Schools (Energy CLASS Prize) program will provide $100,000 each to 25 high-need districts, with an additional $50,000 based on performance, to help build a workforce of energy managers in schools. Another $750,000 will be given in technical assistance from Energy CLASS Training Network partners.
- To apply for the Renew America’s Schools grants, districts must send their concept papers by Jan. 26 and submit applications by April 21. For the Energy CLASS Prize, applications are open now through Feb. 28.
As school buildings age, the quality of indoor air ventilation can decline. This can be especially concerning as schools face an increase in airborne viruses like COVID-19, the flu or RSV that lead to sick children and staff and even temporary school closures.
The American Society of Civil Engineers shared in its 2021 Infrastructure Report Card that 53% of districts say they need to update or replace building infrastructure, including HVAC systems.
“DOE is working diligently to deploy these critical funds so that schools can start turning infrastructure improvements into healthier learning environments and big cost savings, as soon as possible,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm in a statement.
In fact, many schools are already working to address air ventilation infrastructure.
In a November analysis of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief spending, the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council found districts are dedicating $5.5 billion of ESSER dollars to improve indoor school air quality in air filtration and HVAC upgrades. This is the second-highest spending category of ESSER funds, behind investments in overall staffing, academic interventions and school counselors, the analysis said.
However, schools have not always looked to more costly infrastructure upgrades when seeking to improve indoor air quality. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey released in June showed schools were more likely to pivot activities outside or open doors and windows over replacing or updating HVAC systems reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Additionally, the CDC study said rural and mid-poverty schools were the least likely to report using higher-cost options to improve ventilation.
While districts can improve HVAC systems and fresh air ventilation, it’s crucial they also invest in low-cost air quality monitoring systems, said Mark Hernandez, a registered civil engineer and a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” Hernandez said.
Many products are available, in varying degrees of effectiveness, to improve air quality, he said. To make sure these technologies are working, Hernandez said monitoring tools are crucial and should be the first step before looking to improve ventilation infrastructure.
Because investments to improve air quality can be so expensive, monitoring tools can help schools understand where exactly to spend those federal dollars for upgrades, Hernandez said.