By Nora Wang Esram, ACEEE senior director of research 

If each K-12 student in the United States were to bring a check for more than $3,000 to their school and ask for a healthier environment in return, how should the school spend that money? That is the multibillion-dollar question all schools are facing during their budget planning this summer as they prepare to receive a vast infusion of federal relief funds.

This funding, totaling $190.5 billion via the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund, gives schools an unprecedented opportunity to make vital improvements. They can benefit by improving ventilation as part of a broader retrofit that includes more efficient heating and cooling. This win-win strategy can reduce the risk of virus transmission and exposure to environmental health hazards and, at the same time, reduce energy waste and utility bills.

Schools need to act swiftly—and wisely. Cranking up ventilation without a holistic HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) approach could increase energy use and climate-warming emissions. The federal relief funds can plant seeds for change, but schools need more support to upgrade effectively and address competing priorities. Indoor air quality and energy efficiency need to be priorities for school boards or principals, who may be more inclined to use federal funding to hire additional teachers or expand enrichment programs.

We need to think creatively to leverage additional resources—as outlined in this post—to help schools achieve multiple goals at once.

Schools face serious challenges

Although the United States spends heavily on education, many schools have aging and inadequate facilities. An estimated 41% of public-school districts need to update or replace HVAC systems in at least half of their schools, representing approximately 36,000 schools nationwide, according to a 2020 Government Accounting Office (GAO) report.  Another field study, published by science journal Indoor Air, revealed that 87% of the sampled classrooms had ventilation rates below levels recommended by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). 

Schools need to combat several chronic respiratory or communicable diseases, not just the coronavirus causing COVID-19. About 7% of children have asthma, and that number has been increasing every year, especially among Black children. And let’s not forget influenza viruses and rhinovirus, the predominant cause of the common cold. In addition to hygiene and sanitation practices, effective ventilation is a key measure to ensure a healthy indoor environment.

Energy community should help schools achieve goals

Improving ventilation is complicated. Unfortunately, there are few comprehensive statewide assessments to determine school facilities’ needs, and this task is left to school districts or local utility partnerships. Many schools cannot implement recommended strategies for improving indoor air quality because of outdated HVAC systems, according to a joint report by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and ASHRAE. Without a comprehensive facility assessment, adding high-efficiency filters or increasing outdoor air supply is like putting a band-aid on a broken leg. 

Modernizing aging school facilities is a long-term effort that requires significant investments from the public and private sectors. We recommend that federal agencies, local governments, utilities, nonprofit organizations, and other stakeholders take the following steps to provide technical and financial support.

— Conduct statewide facilities’ assessment to identify and prioritize needs. The GAO report revealed that most states do not conduct statewide assessments to determine school facilities’ needs. Local education agencies, which will receive at least 90% of the ESSER funding, need help from energy experts to develop quick and feasible ways to assess schools’ efficiency and indoor air conditions.

— Help school districts align efficiency with health and academic goals. Although the Better Buildings Initiative at the Department of Energy (DOE) has engaged 40 school districts as partners, that is less than 3% of the 13,800 public school districts in the U.S. We need to help local education agencies, school boards, and other stakeholders understand the synergy among energy efficiency, carbon reduction, indoor air quality, and student academic performance. Numerous studies have proven that a healthy indoor environment has a direct positive impact on students’ physical and mental health and their academic performance. 

— Support schools to develop customized strategies at scale. Based on experiences from 47 school districts, the USGBC/ASHRAE report noted that these districts want a customized plan to address their unique circumstances. Many schools may not know that they have indoor air quality problems. They could start by monitoring indoor air quality and use the data to develop performance-based ventilation practices. Indoor air sensors are fairly affordable and easy to use. Local universities and nonprofit organizations could volunteer technical support. DOE is developing a new Efficient and Healthy Schools Campaign to advise schools on how to improve ventilation as part of broader retrofits that save energy and improve indoor air quality.

— Create and leverage other funding sources on efficiency and resilience. The $190.5 billion federal relief funds — including $13.5 billion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, $54.3 billion from the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2021, and $122.7 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act — can be used for a variety of purposes.  Federal funding focused on school efficiency and resilience is needed. Senator Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., recently introduced the Resilient Schools Act of 2021 to provide $40 billion to promote climate resilience, with energy efficiency as a critical component. Rep. Bowman, a former school principal, also proposed the Green New Deal for Public Schools Act that would, among other things, retrofit every public school building to remove asbestos and increase energy efficiency.

Utilities and other local sources should leverage their funding to bolster the federal programs. For example, the Tennessee Valley Authority has launched a School Uplift program to invest $7.3 million over the next three years to help 160 public schools in seven states upgrade aging facilities.

Public–private partnership is essential to transform K-12 public schools in the next decade. We need an all-hands-on-deck approach to develop a short-term plan that helps schools reopen quickly and safely and supports long-term goals that modernize schools and give every child a healthy, efficient, and resilient learning environment.