Coalition: More COVID funds needed to fix school air quality

Municipal leaders, teachers, school staff and school boards and superintendents are teaming up to demand the state of Connecticut provide more funding to help cover the high cost of improving air quality in hundreds of aging schools, an issue that’s been highlighted by the pandemic.

While districts have received federal COVID-19 relief funds, the money falls far short of what’s needed to install air conditioning, upgrade old HVAC systems and improve air quality in some buildings that are more than 100 years old, Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said Thursday during a news conference.

“Everyone seems to think that there are untold numbers of ESSER dollars,” she said, referring to the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, which was part of the American Rescue Act of 2021.

But Rabinowitz said half of the state’s districts received less than $5 million, while the average cost of upgrading HVAC systems in one elementary school can range from $5 million to $6 million.

Many districts have relied on the funding to pay for other initiatives to help students recover from learning loss last school year and other pandemic-recovery expenses, leaving little to cover the cost of HVAC projects, she said.

“Maybe some of it, a little of it, can be used for HVAC and maybe in some of the largest districts that received far more money, we can use a piece of it. But it’s not enough,” she said during a news conference. “And we can’t depend on the local districts and local municipalities to do this alone. We need state help.”

A survey conducted by the superintendents’ association of more than 100 school districts in Connecticut found there are currently 233 elementary schools and 42 grade 9-12 schools that do not have air conditioning. Those figures do not include schools with outdated HVAC systems. It’s unclear how much it will cost to upgrade buildings throughout the state.

Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said his organization, the Council of Small Towns and local municipal officials met with a representative of Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration as recently as Aug. 2 to discuss the expensive issue of fixing aging or nonexistent HVAC systems in schools. He said they received “snarky and in many cases inaccurate information” about how towns can use federal funds they have received to address the problem.

DeLong called on the General Assembly to get involved, noting lawmakers vote on Lamont’s plan for spending federal rescue funds. There is approximately $280 million in remaining American Rescue Plan money for Connecticut that has not yet been allocated by the legislature.

“No plan should be approved until providing an acceptable breathing environment in our schools is a priority for the state,” said DeLong. He also said HVAC systems should be treated the same as aging school roofs and windows, which can be replaced using state bonding that’s separate from the federal rescue funds.

A message was left seeking comment with Lamont’s spokesperson.

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