Bill Proposes School HVAC Upgrades, But Not Enough Money to Pay for Them

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Over a dozen teachers have submitted testimony in support of a bill that would impose new regulations on air quality and indoor temperatures in public schools, while superintendents say that the required HVAC upgrades will require more money and time than the bill provides for.  

Tara Karlson, a teacher in Stamford, said in written testimony that she has taught in classrooms that were 40 degrees and 110 degrees, and that the humidity can reach dangerous levels. 

“Once the heat is turned off, the humidity levels change. The humidity increases rapidly and tends to be between 60 and 75 percent. I have even come into the classroom to a condensation flood. The walls were dripping and there was standing water on all surfaces, including desks and chairs,” Karlson wrote in her testimony to the legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee. 

Teachers from districts across the state submitted testimony recounting stories of students having to wear coats and gloves inside, mold growing in the classrooms and intense heat. 

“On hot days in the summer my classroom has reached temperatures of close to 90. This is unbearable and should not be allowed. On some winter days it was so cold inside the classrooms, students and teachers had to wear hats, coats and gloves to keep warm. Students can’t write well or type with gloves on. These situations are just ridiculous and should not be allowed in learning environments,” wrote Sarah Holland, a teacher with Area Cooperative Educational Services, known as ACES.

In a public hearing on the bill on Tuesday, Rep. Mitch Bolinsky, R-Newtown, said that the legislature needed to take advantage of the current attention on air quality — driven by the pandemic — to address an issue that has long been a problem in public schools. 

“Indoor air quality is among the most long standing unaddressed matters of public health in our schools,” said Bolinsky. 

Bolinsky referred to the story of Joellen Lawson, a former public school teacher in Fairfield who became permanently disabled after exposure to toxic mold. The elementary school where she worked had to be demolished because the mold problem could not be remediated. 

“The school was abandoned, razed and had to be reconstructed from the ground up. It was a problem that did not need to happen,” said Bolinsky.  

Jody Terranova, a pediatrician at Connecticut Children’s Hospital and president-elect for the Connecticut chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that high temperatures and humidity in classrooms create conditions where mold can grow. She said that exposure to mold can be especially problematic for children with asthma. Over time, she said, repeated attacks can cause permanent lung damage and decreased lung capacity. 

“The repeated exposure and trauma then causes more and more damage. So it … accumulates over time, but even just a short term exposure can cause some small, but permanent damage,” said Terranova. 

The bill requires local district boards of education to assess the indoor air quality of their district’s schools every three years starting in July 2024, and to upgrade their HVAC systems by June 2026. It will also establish standards for air quality under the Department of Labor and force school districts to close if the temperature in the building is either too hot or too cold. 

State Rep. Michael Winkler, D-Vernon, said that while there are standards for the rate of air circulation, there are no standards for the amount of mold or other particulates that should be circulating in the air. 

He said the federal government has been reluctant to create national air quality standards. 

“If they establish even one standard, millions of buildings across the country would have to be remediated,” said Winkler. “Corporations do not want to spend the money that that would entail.” 

Both the American Federation of Teachers CT chapter and the Connecticut Education Association testified in support of the bill. Kate Dias, president of the Connecticut Education Association, said she felt that it was critical for the legislature to codify air quality standards in order to compel districts to spend money to fix the problem.

“The absence of standards in those statutes means that we are allowing for windows to need to be opened in the middle of winter, we are allowing children to sit in classrooms that are 95 to 100 degrees,” said Dias.  

Dias said that she teaches math in a classroom on the 2nd floor of a building built in the 1950s. During the summer, she said, heat “radiates” into her room from a nearby tar roof. The lack of ventilation in the building during COVID meant that she had to keep her windows open during the winter.

“That meant it snowed in my classroom while I was trying to instruct,” said Dias.  

Ian Neviaser, superintendent of schools in Lyme-Old Lyme, said the most important part of the bill for him was the part that would make it possible for school districts to get state reimbursement for HVAC upgrades. 

“I do think that if we can at least get that concept of HVAC becoming a reimbursable renovation expense, then that will be a great step in the right direction,” he said.

But Scott Leslie, acting assistant superintendent for Region 8 schools, said in written testimony that upgrades to his district’s air handling system would cost taxpayers money even with grant money available, and that shutting schools down once they hit certain temperatures would disrupt learning in the schools.  

“Requiring schools to close due to heat and humidity levels will make it much more challenging for schools to complete the required 180 days prior to June 30 in the event of the typical heat and humidity levels experienced in late June,” he wrote. 

Charlene Russell-Tucker, Commissioner of the Department of Education, said she was also concerned about the temperature-related closures, and asked that they be recommended rather than compulsory, and that the schools be given a period of several hours to remedy the situation. 

“Closing schools has a significant impact on student learning and therefore, as we recover from the educational effects of the pandemic, we must work intentionally to minimize any learning disruptions,” said Russell-Tucker. 

Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of State Superintendents, told CT Examiner that there needed to be a “significant allotment” of state funding and bonding toward HVAC in order for schools to be able to comply with the temperature standards. She said that over 600 schools currently don’t have air conditioning. 

“In Bridgeport, when I was interim superintendent there for three years, I would have had to shut down many of the schools during the months of June and September. It’s just reality,” she said. 

Gov. Ned Lamont announced in early March that he would allocate $90 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to provide grants to schools that are upgrading their HVAC systems. But Rabinowitz said that amount of funding was only “a drop in the bucket” compared to what was needed. 

“A small elementary school would be well over a million, close to two million to air-condition, and that’s without any major issues, right?” she said. “But some of these old schools are going to need retrofitting and everything else.” 

Both Neviaser and Rabinowitz said that they felt the 2026 date was too ambitious to expect school districts to have upgraded their air systems. 

“I think that bonding and everything else that would be required is going to take a great deal longer than that,” said Rabinowitz. “But I think it would be fabulous for this state to have a plan, a long-term plan with municipalities for how this could be accomplished.”