Now Is the Time to Invest in School Facilities

June 30, 2020

Update: The Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act of 2020 passed the House on July 1 as part of the Moving Forward Act.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed just how critical schools are, and it’s time we decide as a country to fully invest in schools—and the students that attend them. As schools work to reopen safely, they are facing many challenges.

A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that more than half of schools need multiple building updates. Healthy Schools Campaign advocated for the completion of this report—the first of its kind in more than 20 years. While the release of the report is an important milestone, we now need to advocate for funding so schools can address the issues revealed in the report.

A new bill aims to do just that. The Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act of 2020 includes $100 billion in grants and $30 billion in bond authority focused on schools in low-income areas. The Act would provide funds directly to schools to update facilities to be in line with CDC guidelines for reopening. The act passed the House on July 1, 2020, and will now need to be taken up by the Senate.

Indoor Air Quality

While all students should have healthy indoor air all the time, the truth is that is not the case. The GAO estimates that 41 percent of districts need to update or replace their Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) systems in at least half of their school buildings—about 36,000 school buildings across the country.

An aging and ineffective HVAC system can lead to poor indoor air quality in schools, which can exacerbate asthma. Even before COVID-19, more than 14 million school days were missed every year due to asthma. We now know that COVID-19 affects the respiratory system and that asthma sufferers are considered high risk for COVID-19. That means indoor air quality is even more important as schools look to reopen.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognizes this and includes making sure HVAC systems are operating properly as a key condition for schools to reopen in its guidance to schools.

An Opportunity to Invest in School Facilities

The urgent need for repairs comes as schools will be facing major budget shortfalls. According to Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, states are facing a $615 billion revenue shortfall over
three years.

While we need to ensure that all students attend school facilities that provide healthy environments, we need to focus on schools that serve students of color in low-income areas.

Not only have these students been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 (and the associated trauma), they also attend schools that are more reliant on shrinking state budgets and have higher rates of chronic health conditions like asthma that are exacerbated by inadequate school facilities. Schools in low-income areas also spend less on facility improvements and upkeep. On average, schools in low-income areas spend $300 less per student annually on capital projects than schools in higher-income areas. The GAO report also found that schools in low-income areas relied more heavily on state funding for capital projects while schools in higher-income areas relied on local funding, like property taxes.

The Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act of 2020 aims to rectify this imbalance and provide schools with the needed funding for capital improvements. Healthy Schools Campaign is in support of this act, and we’re asking you to join us by writing a letter to your Senator. We’ve made it easy for you by drafting a template email that you can edit.

The Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act is just one way to ensure schools get the funding they need. What’s more important is that we finally recognize the important role schools play and invest accordingly.