More COVID funds needed to fix school air quality

City leaders, teachers, school staff and school boards and superintendents are teaming up to demand the state of Connecticut provide more funding to cover the high costs of improving air quality in hundreds of aging schools, a problem highlighted by the pandemic.

While districts have received federal COVID-19 relief funds, the money is lagging far behind what is 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 at a news conference Thursday.

“Everyone seems to think there are untold numbers of ESSER dollars,” she said, referring to the federal primary and secondary school emergency fund, which was part of the American Rescue Act of 2021.

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

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

“Maybe some of it, some of it, can be used for HVAC, and maybe in some of the biggest districts that have received a lot more money, we can use some of it. But it’s not enough,” she said at a news conference. “And we can’t just rely on the local districts and municipalities. We need state aid.”

A survey conducted by the Association of Superintendents of more than 100 school districts in Connecticut found that there are currently 233 elementary schools and 42 schools aged 9-12 that do not have air conditioning. Those numbers do not include schools with outdated HVAC systems. It’s unclear how much it will cost to upgrade buildings in 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 Democratic Administration representative Ned Lamont on Aug. 2 to resolve the expensive issue of discuss aging. or non-existent HVAC systems in schools. He said they received “stringent and in many cases inaccurate information” about how cities can use federal funds they have received to address the problem.

DeLong called on the General Assembly to join in, noting that lawmakers are voting on Lamont’s plan to spend federal bailout funds. There is still about $280 million in money from the US bailout plan 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,” DeLong said. He also said HVAC systems should be treated in the same way as aging school roofs and windows, which can be replaced using government bonds separate from federal bailout funds.

A message was left asking for comment from Lamont’s spokesperson.

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