School may be out for the summer, but for the facilities themselves, the work is just beginning. This past year saw many abrupt changes for everyone, but students — along with their families — had to fight the constant back-and-forth battle of in-person to virtual learning as schools shut down, reopened and then shut down again during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released mountains of information to help schools navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, including operational and prevention strategies as well as mitigation toolkits. As of May 15, the CDC recommends the continued use of masks in classrooms as well as physical distancing between students. Ventilation and IAQ are also important components of school prevention strategies to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. However, school districts have been struggling with aging mechanical systems for years. Earlier this year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report showing an estimated 54% of public school districts need to update or replace multiple building systems or features in their schools. Improving HVAC systems is at the top of the list, with an estimated 41% of districts needing to update or replace HVAC systems in at least half of their schools, representing about 36,000 schools nationwide that need HVAC updates.

The Center for Green Schools at U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), with technical support from ASHRAE, recently released survey results from school districts across the country, detailing the measures they have taken to improve indoor air quality (IAQ) in school buildings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The responses cover more than 4,000 schools serving 2.5 million students in 24 states. The survey asked schools how they had prioritized and implemented the six strategies of ventilation and filtration to help reduce transmission. About 89% of participants highly prioritized increasing outdoor air supply through existing HVAC systems, and 79% of participants highly prioritized implementing a pre/post-occupancy flushing strategy. 

The survey also found that school districts still have unmet needs and face numerous challenges related to high costs and outdated building infrastructure. The most-frequently cited challenge to implementing protective air quality measures at schools was that school buildings were not designed to support the strategies that were being recommended. One participant cited winter-time ventilation in schools — heated by radiant hot-water heaters — did not have the option for flushing, increasing airflow or filtration.

However, there is hope on the horizon for school districts with President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which includes $123 billion for K-12 education. Beyond the COVID-19 relief packages, the Biden Administration is proposing more than $100 billion for school facility repairs and construction in its nationwide infrastructure proposal. The $2 trillion plan also includes $12 billion for capital projects at community colleges and $25 billion to upgrade and expand access to child care facilities. School facility upgrades and new construction would be financed through $50 billion in grants and an another $50 billion leveraged through bonds. Biden’s proposal stresses the importance of ventilation and IAQ, as well as the need to create more energy-efficient, green buildings. 

“Schools can use federal funds for a variety of items relevant to the building industry and green building, including school building improvements that reduce risk of virus transmission and exposure to environmental health hazards,” said Anisa Heming, director of the Center for Green Schools at USGBC in a news release. “Many green building strategies support the implementation of public health guidance and maintaining the operation of and continuity of services at schools, both allowable uses of the funding. The Center for Green Schools at USGBC is here to help facilitate safe and healthy spaces for our K-12 children.”

Of course, all of this funding means new opportunities for engineers to design better, more efficient HVAC systems for schools. IAQ is going to be paramount moving forward in this post-COVID world. To learn more about the USGBC survey, download the full report.