After receiving $995 million in funds from the American Rescue Plan, advocates for towns, school districts, teachers, superintendents and other staff are asking the legislature to include repairs for school ventilation systems in the statewide plan for the additional federal dollars.
“The Connecticut General Assembly’s approval of Governor Lamont’s spending plan for federal funds under the American Rescue Plan must include HVAC repairs needed by local public schools across the state; and HVAC repairs must be included as part of the State Department of Education’s annual bond funding to towns for school construction and repairs,” according to Kevin Maloney of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. “As town and city officials remain vigilant on all public health related issues during the COVID pandemic, the quality of indoor air in public schools is critical to the health and safety of our students.”
On Thursday morning representatives from Connecticut Education Association, Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents and other advocacy groups gathered to urge legislators to support their request that both state funds for COVID relief and state bonding be used to repair and construct air purification and air conditioning systems in schools across the state.
Currently, the Governor has not included such allocations in his plan for the American Rescue Plan dollars suggesting that local American Rescue Plan funds could be used for that purpose. In addition, school districts and municipalities are not currently allowed to apply for state bonding aid to repair or construct HVAC systems as they are for new school buildings or large renovation projects.
“Our outreach so far, except for Commissioner Russell-Tucker, has been met with indifference,” said Joe DeLong, the Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Connecticut Conference for Municipalities. “The state has said that HVAC systems are only outdated if the town has done something wrong in budgeting.”
DeLong said there is no evidence to support the state’s claim.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted many failing HVAC systems and other air quality concerns, according to teachers and superintendents this is not a new problem. For instance, in June in Bridgeport it has become routine to send students home halfway through the day when the buildings are deemed too hot, said Fran Rabinowitz, former superintendent of Bridgeport Public Schools and current Executive Director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.
“My classroom on the second floor has two windows that overlook a black top roof making it incredibly hot and humid at the start and end of the school year,” said Kate Dias, a math teacher at Manchester High School and the Connecticut Education Association President. “With the pandemic we were forced to leave windows open in 30-degree weather, you would never tell people in other industries to work in these conditions, but we tell 43,000 teachers that these are the conditions they have to work in.”
Dias pointed out that there is no set standard for classroom temperature or air quality as there are in, for example, pet stores. Currently, 233 elementary schools and 42 high schools in the state are not air-conditioned.
Typically, HVAC replacement projects and air conditioning installations cost towns upwards of $5 million per school. For example, this year in Newtown taxpayers will be voting on whether or not to fund an $8 million ventilation project at just one of the town’s seven schools, according to superintendent Michelle Embree Ku.
The advocates were aware that much of the American Rescue Plan funding is already spoken for, but said that there is definitely some to spare for this purpose, not to fix every school, but to help some get started.
“Other states are using federal dollars to fix infrastructure in schools,” said Donald Williams of the Connecticut Education Association. “We don’t contend that it should only go to infrastructure…but there is no questions that some of it could be addressed to that.”
DeLong said that Connecticut Conference of Municipalities has been reaching out legislators to discuss the issue and in private conversations he is getting a lot of positive feedback.
“I’m optimistic that it is on the General Assembly’s radar, even if they are not ready to commit to it, they are ready to discuss it,” he said.
Whether or not funds are allocated by the Governor, General Assembly or if bonding regulations change to allow districts to apply for aid in HVAC projects, these are all long-term solutions to the current air quality issue. Planning and completing projects takes a few years in the best of circumstances. In the meantime, some districts have purchased single classroom air purifying systems and some are wondering why more districts aren’t using the American Rescue Plan funds in this way.
“Why on the state level are we getting into these large, multi-year investments in infrastructure. Why are we not going after these small units that clean the air with the funds we have now,” said Dan Quigley, the chair of the Republican Town Committee in Greenwich.
Quigley said he has been urging the Greenwich Public Schools to use their $10 million for this purpose to make sure students and teachers are safe throughout the current school year and pandemic.
“The public school system in Manhattan put one of these in every classroom…if they could act quickly, why is our state so intent on deliberating for multi-years when we need the problem solved right now.”