Governor Northam Announces $500 Million Investment to Improve Air Quality in Virginia Schools

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Gov. Ralph Northam has announced a $500 million investment in improving air quality in Virginia schools (Unsplash/Carlos Linder)

HOPEWELL — Governor Ralph Northam announced on Monday, July 26 that Virginia plans to invest $500 million to improve ventilation and air quality in public schools, ensuring the completion of nearly all currently planned HVAC projects. The Commonwealth will allocate $250 million in federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) funding for necessary ventilation upgrades, which will be matched 1:1 by local ARP or other relief funding. Ventilation systems clean and disperse the air, reducing the risk of several airborne diseases, including COVID-19.

Governor Northam made the announcement at Hopewell High School along with school officials to celebrate the year-round launch of their school initiative. This announcement marks the start of “Investment Week,” in which the governor and legislative leaders will highlight proposals for allocating the $4.3 billion in ARP funding available to the Commonwealth ahead of the special session of 2 August.

“Air quality is an important part of maintaining safe and healthy learning environments for our students in the Commonwealth,” said Governor Northam. “This investment will help families, educators and students feel more confident in the quality of the air they breathe as we return to face-to-face learning five days a week this fall.”

In a recent report to the Commission for the Construction and Modernization of Schools, the Virginia Department of Education analyzed 117 capital improvement plans (CIPs) of school divisions detailing the projects they plan to complete over the next decade. After plans for new buildings and renovations, school departments were the most scheduled for HVAC repair and replacement projects, with a total of 463 HVAC projects at a cost of $623 million. Governor Northam’s investment will ensure the completion of nearly all currently planned projects.

“By ensuring there is clean air in our classrooms, staff and students can be assured that schools are safe places so they can focus on learning,” said Education Minister Atif Qarni. “We know that high-quality ventilation systems reduce the number of virus particles in the air, and this investment means that schools in Virginia will have HVAC systems updated for years to come.”

Funding is allocated to school divisions based on their average daily membership, with a minimum allocation of $200,000 per school division. The funds will be awarded as fees to divisions that complete HVAC projects.

“This funding is incredibly important to Commonwealth schools that urgently need to upgrade their ventilation systems,” said Senator Louise Lucas, chair of the Senate Education and Health Committee. “I’m proud to be able to provide this much-needed support on behalf of educators, staff, students and communities.”

“In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools have recognized the need to improve their air quality and HVAC systems,” said House Education Committee Representative Roslyn Tyler. “More than ever, this funding is critical to ensuring that we provide a safe and supportive learning environment for students in schools in Virginia.”

Every school in Virginia is required to make in-person instruction available to all students in the 2021-2022 school year, in accordance with: Senate Bill 1303 which was passed at Virginia’s special session in 2021.

“When the special session meets next week, the Commonwealth has the opportunity to invest in its future, starting with its students,” said Senator Janet Howell, chair of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee. “This investment is another great example of how we will use funding from the US bailout plan to move Virginia forward and build on investment from last year’s CARES Act funding.

“We are working with municipalities to modernize schools in the Commonwealth,” said Representative Luke Torian, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “This partnership will support our joint efforts to create healthy learning environments for all of our students.”

In 2020, Governor Northam gave $492 million in federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to state-level public schools and PreK-12 education initiatives. This year, Virginia received approximately $939 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) II funds under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act of 2021. Ninety percent of the funding was distributed to school departments in January, with the another 10 percent reserved for targeted state-level initiatives to address the impact of the pandemic on students and schools. In addition, the American Rescue Plan Act funds ESSER III Directly allocate $1.9 billion to school divisions, with an additional state set aside of $211 million.

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