As school districts and charter schools begin spending down an unprecedented infusion of federal Covid-relief aid, it looks like nearly $10 billion could go toward a single priority: improving heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.
Recent stories in The Wall Street Journal and Kaiser Health News underscore how school districts are scrambling to spend the federal aid on these and other capital projects. While some schools are simply adding new filters, others plan to replace aging systems that haven’t worked well for years.
These repairs can influence how students learn, ensuring classrooms aren’t too hot or too cold, and removing conditions that can make students and teachers sick. As I told KHN’s Liz Szabo, “If you look at the research, it shows that a school’s literal climate — the heat, the mold, the humidity — directly affects learning.”
FutureEd’s analysis of spending plans compiled by the Burbio data-services firm of 5,000-plus school districts serving 74 percent of the nation’s public school students shows that about half of the districts plan HVAC projects. Nearly a third of districts expect to spend on repairs to prevent illness, a broad category that includes lead and asbestos abatement, as well as mold and mildew prevention.
When we broke the planned spending down by school poverty levels, we found that schools serving higher concentrations of children in poverty are more likely to invest in these upgrades and repairs. That’s not just because they have more money to spend under the federal formula for dispensing the Covid aid. They also have more need. A recent Government Accountability Office report found that high poverty schools spent, on average, $300 less per student on capital projects than more affluent districts in a single year.
More broadly, a new study of facilities spending in Los Angeles Unified School District found that building upgrades corresponded with improved achievement and higher property values for homes near the schools.
Many schools have been slow to spend the windfall of federal aid because of the time-consuming process of hiring contractors and meeting state or federal requirements. Supply chain delays and shortages of materials could also delay construction and add to costs. Recognizing this, the U.S. Education Department has offered to consider spending extensions beyond the late 2024 deadline for obligating the federal relief dollars.