Fixing School Buildings
New opportunities to attend to indoor air quality and other energy-saving facility upgrades
BY ANISA HEMING/School Administrator, October 2022

Anisa Heming (right), director of the Center for Green Schools, says indoor air quality can affect student performance. PHOTO BY © STAN’S DAUGHTER STUDIOS LLC
School buildings across the country are on average 50 years old and, in many cases, desperately need investment. According to the latest “State of Our Schools Report,” which examines the level of investment in school facilities across the country, the nation is facing an annual shortfall of $85 billion when it comes to capital construction and operations and maintenance for schools.

Many schools, particularly in rural and low-wealth communities, struggle to make necessary upgrades and improvements. The pandemic has spotlighted those struggles, but it did not start them.

A Focus on Air

At the top of the list for many school districts as they emerge from the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic are improvements to indoor air quality. The quality of ventilation and air filtration in schools impacts how readily illnesses can spread through airborne particles. IAQ also can affect students’ health and performance.

Studies have shown that adequate ventilation and high-efficiency air filtration can lessen the transmission of airborne diseases, reduce the number of absences and improve student performance. But according to the last two national IAQ surveys conducted by the Center for Green Schools, schools and districts struggle to improve ventilation in the classrooms largely because of outdated infrastructure and/or HVAC systems.

One positive is that a few new sources of funding for K-12 facilities recently have become available at the state and federal levels. But knowing how to prepare and apply for these resources can be tricky, particularly when the funding is targeted to specific objectives like indoor air quality and energy efficiency.

The Longitudinal View

Given the heavy load that schools are carrying in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, taking advantage of the school facilities funding available to set up schools for long-term success will take focus and forethought. Based on the Center on Green Schools’ experience in coaching school districts through decision making on these topics, here are our four suggestions.

»Take advantage of early funding to complete a long-range facilities plan (if your school district does not have one) so you’ll be ready for additional opportunities.

Applications for federal-level and state-level funding for school district facilities often must be put in context within a longer-term picture of capital planning and maintenance. If your school district has not been through a bond campaign lately, there is a chance you haven’t invested in creating or updating your facilities plan to take into account the current state of your buildings and current enrollment projections.

Using ESSER III funds or other funds to help finance a planning effort prepares your district for the future by clearly articulating which investments are needed and when. In Colorado Springs District 11, facilities staff acted early in the pandemic to conduct detailed assessments of the working condition of windows, fans, pumps, dampers and other HVAC equipment. Additionally, they compared actual system performance against the building automation system settings, noting where things were not optimized. If additional federal investment in school facilities passes Congress — as outlined in the much-discussed Rebuilding America’s Schools Act — the districts that will be able to move quickly and take advantage of early funding will be those that use this kind of data to put clear plans in place.

»Bundle high-payback items such as lighting with low-payback (but highly valuable) items such as indoor air quality improvements when it comes to implementing energy savings projects.

Whether funding for energy efficiency projects comes through grants or private contracts, the pressure is always to invest in measures that save the most energy quickly. This approach makes sense on the surface, but be cautious. The savings from quick payback projects like replacing fluorescent lighting with LED lighting is best leveraged by bundling them with longer payback projects, such as HVAC replacement or even projects that have no energy bill payback, such as IAQ improvements. If a school district completes all of the quick payback items in one contract, it may lose out on the opportunity to implement a more comprehensive set of improvements.

In Lincoln, Neb., Public Schools, the 10-year facilities plan prioritizes air quality, listing it as a stand-alone category along with renovation and new construction. Project funding for IAQ is paired with energy efficiency investments, such as geothermal ground source heat systems, and with items that take longer to pay back with energy savings, such as updates to the building envelope. 
As part of the Green Apple Day of Service initiative, a group rebuilt a garden at a public charter school in Washington, D.C. PHOTO BY © ANA KA’AHANUI/U.S. GREEN BUILDING COUNCIL

This strategy has proven to be a successful model for the school district and one that has been repeated at dozens of buildings. Taking this approach not only has resulted in significant energy cost savings, it also greatly improves the teaching and learning environment by providing healthier and more comfortable spaces for staff and students.

»Engage third-party experts in checking the claims of company sales teams, particularly when it comes to products that claim indoor air quality improvements.

In typical times, school district facilities teams and leadership are inundated with calls and e-mails from salespeople who are pitching new technologies and strategies for schools. The last few years have been anything but typical, and these sales calls have only increased. Federal agencies and national organizations, including the U.S. Green Building Council, have attempted to stay ahead of air quality claims by emphasizing that improved filtration and increased ventilation are basic, reliable strategies with no known byproducts or side effects. Testing methods for these strategies are well-established, and they do not add anything to the air while addressing contaminants like viral particles.

Many of the nation’s larger districts, such as Boston Public Schools, have sought out third-party public health experts and hired industrial hygienists to help evaluate air purifier efficacy, conduct noise tests and calculate the air exchanges on air purifier models. Similarly, Santa Fe Public Schools brought in engineering firms and consultants the district had trusted relationships with to advise on product efficacy.

Districts in rural or town locales were more likely to lean on local and state sources of information rather than federal or national entities, as compared with school districts in cities or suburbs, according to the results of school districts’ air quality actions during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

We believe one reason for this difference may be that smaller districts in more rural areas often lack the staff time, capacity or expertise to review guidance. In these cases, seeking knowledgeable professionals who can provide guidance from reliable sources and advise school districts on purchasing is essential to avoid using technologies that may do more harm than good.

»Train in-house staff to use benchmarking tools so you own the data about your school facilities and can make long-term, informed decisions.

Another common misstep when implementing projects that have an impact on energy usage (including most indoor air quality projects) is relying too heavily on a contractor for data management and tracking. Learning early on from their peer facility and sustainability leaders about the importance of measuring, monitoring, and paying attention to data, the staff at Santa Fe Public Schools in New Mexico was able to lean on 13 years of past utility data to measure the impact of COVID-safe HVAC practices during the pandemic, build accurate budgets going forward and better target facilities for improvements.

Anisa Heming directs the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council.

Although it requires additional staff time, ensuring that in-house staff is trained to use benchmarking tools to understand a project’s true impact is essential to getting what you need out of contractors. Free benchmarking tools, such as ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager (benchmarks energy and water) and Arc (benchmarks energy, water, waste, transportation and air quality), allow a school district full access to its own data as well as ownership over the data and analysis in the event that a contract ends or is terminated.

Spending Models

As school districts take advantage of federal and state funding for facilities, several organizations and agencies are eager to help. Those advocating for more substantial future support for school facilities understand that the funding available now can serve as a model for the future, and it is important that projects using current funding are successful and impactful.

Training and information on school district air quality are available through the Environmental Protection Agency’s long-running Tools for Schools program, and additional peer-to-peer learning and best practice sharing are available for free through the Center for Green Schools’ School District Air Quality Network. The U.S. Department of Energy has established an Efficient and Healthy Schools Initiative that offers both technical assistance for school districts as well as recognition for excellence.

ANISA HEMING is director of the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @mygreenschools