- The American Society of Civil Engineers, which assigned a C- grade to the nation's total infrastructure in its latest quadrennial assessment, gave school infrastructure a D grade. By comparison, the 16 other infrastructure categories' grades in the 2021 Report Card for America's Infrastructure ranged from B to D-.
- The organization pointed to a 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office, which found 53% of the nation's schools need to upgrade or replace multiple building systems, including HVAC. The same agency found nearly 41% reported issues with HVAC systems, with ASCE calling it a "significant concern," and that 16% of districts have not assessed their facilities in the past decade.
- The report pointed to a lack of planning, saying four in 10 public schools do not have a long-term facility plan for operations and maintenance. It also said despite progress in areas like technology, "many school districts have not been able to keep pace" with new needs during the pandemic such as adding capacity with outdoor classrooms, temporary buildings or leasing spaces on limited budgets.
There has been a renewed spotlight on school infrastructure due to COVID-19 concerns because the virus is airborne, and the overall health and safety conditions of school buildings. Along with additional pandemic-related reopening costs like personal protective equipment and hand sanitizers — which the Association of School Business Officials International and AASA, The School Superintendents Association, estimate could cost an average-sized district $1.8 million — some schools have had to invest in air filtration technology and new HVAC systems.
In some places, teachers unions have highlighted these concerns as conditions for safely reopening. Addressing these concerns, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued updated school guidance in late February on how to address classroom ventilation for reopening during the pandemic.
While the link between students' physical well-being and school conditions is well known, reports show decaying school buildings also contribute to negative academic outcomes and increasing absenteeism — both concerns due to COVID-19 school closures, as well.
The ASCE report suggests districts:
- Implement condition assessments to evaluate existing school infrastructure.
- Improve planning and allocation of resources through life-cycle cost analysis, including costs associated with planning, funding, design, construction, operation, maintenance and decommissioning.
- Develop capital planning frameworks that can adapt to changing technologies and demographics, and respond to holistic needs of the community.
- Find new ways to fund and facilitate school construction projects, including lease financing and ownership and use arrangements.
The average school is 44 years old and hasn't been renovated in over a decade, according to a report by the 21st Century School Fund, the National Council on School Facilities and the Center for Green Schools.
Part of the problem, the ASCE said, may be slimming state and local fund sources, which schools rely on for construction. For example, it pointed to research by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which found state capital funding for schools was down 31% in fiscal year 2017 when compared to 2008. That amounts to a $20 billion cut, according to the CBPP.
The civil engineers group added that there exists a $38 billion spending gap between what is spent on new school construction and projects ($49 billion annually) to improve infrastructure on one hand, and what the nation should be spending ($87 billion per year) to provide healthy and safe learning environments on the other.