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As part of the country’s pandemic recovery efforts, the government passed myriad funding bills aimed at not only helping keep small businesses afloat, but to help school districts with money to help improve air quality in their buildings.
Programs such as the $190 billion Elementary and Secondary School Relief Fund (ESSER) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) pumped another $50 billion into the system to help schools in low-income and disadvantaged communities apply for grants and technical assistance to help reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
But even with all the money available, and all the attention given to the funding bills, there’s a feeling of uncertainty among leaders in the HVAC industry that some school district leaders aren’t sure how to access the money for upgrades.
“I get a lot of questions from school districts, like, ‘How do I get this money?’ but they already have that money, they probably don’t even realize it,” says Alex Ayres, the director of Government Affairs for HARDI (Heating, Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Distributors International). Ayres recently presented during an education session on K-12 funding at the annual AHR trade show dedicated to HVAC. “Schools had to apply (for the funding) and basically fill out a form that says, ‘I promise to use this money for approved functions.”
Under the ESSER fund, schools can use the funding for several projects. The list includes purchasing PPE and sanitizing products, but it also allows for spending on HVAC upgrades and repairs. Among the approved HVAC projects are inspections and testing, maintaining, repairing or replacing HVAC systems to improve indoor air quality (IAQ) in school facilities. Funds can also be used for upgrades to HVAC systems, filtering, purification and other air cleaning, fans, control systems and window and door repair and replacements.
As Ayres mentioned, the money is already available for school districts. The Department of Education distributed funds to the states in January, and states were directed to distribute 90 percent of funds to the schools and use 10 percent for additional subgrants.
At the district level, local education agencies can apply for the funding from states and the schools then receive money from their local agencies.
School facility managers should make note of two important dates: Sept. 30, 2023 (ESSER II deadline) and Sept. 30, 2024 (ESSER III deadline) to claim funds. Managers can view public data on ESSER spending to learn more.
Funding is also available for private schools based on the number of students enrolled at the school who reside inside the district.
Ayres told a group of mostly HVAC contractors that business opportunities should exist because of the funding and schools trying to spend the funds, but that many of the schools are using the money to buy disinfecting products than IAQ upgrades.
Ayres also said the pandemic raised awareness to an IAQ issue in schools that existed long before COVID-19 became a household phrase.
“Before the coronavirus even started, the government found that more than half of all school buildings in 40 percent of school districts are in need of HVAC upgrades,” Ayres says. “That’s about 17,000 schools nationwide that have insufficient HVAC for the students that are in those buildings. That’s a massive number of students that need better HVAC. They’ve got outdated systems that have mold and poor IAQ, even before coronavirus. Now that coronavirus is essentially part of our everyday lives, it’s even more important to have better indoor air quality.”
Dave Lubach is managing editor of the Facility Market.