As school districts around the U.S. are preparing to bring students and teachers back to a healthy environment, school facilities may be ill-prepared for the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic. On June 4, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report finding that “about half (an estimated 54 percent) of public school districts need to update or replace multiple building systems or features in their schools.”
Particularly relevant to school districts planning for reopening in the fall amid the pandemic, the GAO estimated that “41 percent of districts need to update or replace heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in at least half of their schools, representing about 36,000 schools nationwide that need HVAC updates.” Additionally, an estimated one-third of school districts have not conducted comprehensive facilities assessments within the last 10 years.
These findings build upon those in the 2016 State of Our Schools report, published by the Center for Green Schools and its partners, which found systemic underinvestment in school facilities to the tune of $46 billion each year.
The Center for Green Schools has been tracking the development of guidance related to school facilities and health in the lead-up to schools reopening. It is clear that more intensive cleaning protocols, social distancing measures, and HVAC filtration and increased ventilation are all part of the picture. However, school facilities are not starting on equal footing. Many school facilities lack even basic systems to maintain healthy environments—to meet the demands of the current moment seems far-fetched for these buildings.
Education and building industry groups have supported additional investment in school facilities, including through the Rebuild America’s School Infrastructure Coalition, where the Center for Green Schools serves on the executive committee. The community has seen some movement on Capitol Hill, but more voices must be heard for legislation to move any further. In the U.S. House of Representatives, the Rebuild America’s School Act (HB 865) was introduced by Rep. Bobby Scott from Virginia and now has 212 cosponsors, and an identical Senate bill, Senate Bill 266, was introduced by Sen. Jack Reed from Rhode Island.
The GAO report is an important milestone in making the case for federal investment in school infrastructure. It was conducted because the Joint Explanatory Statement accompanying the Department of Defense and Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Act and Continuing Appropriations Act of 2019 (read the full text) included a provision for the GAO to study the condition of public school facilities.
According to the GAO, to carry out the study, they “conducted a nationally representative survey of school districts and also surveyed 50 states and the District of Columbia; visited 55 schools in 16 districts across six states, selected for geographic variation and other characteristics; analyzed federal data on school district expenditures for capital construction projects; and interviewed federal, state, district, and school officials.”