Campus Safety

Balancing Safety and Sustainability to Upgrade School Infrastructure

By Steve Roth

School infrastructure has faced significant challenges over the past few years. Take the push to prioritize ventilation upgrades because of COVID-19, for example, or the onslaught of natural disasters increasing in severity. In fact, during 2021 alone, the U.S. faced the hottest June on record, record-breaking fire destruction in July and rapid spread of the Delta variant through the fall. Unprecedented events like these won’t be slowing down any time soon. As administrators look forward, they are faced with the difficult challenge of ensuring their building infrastructure encompasses both short-term safety and long-term priorities while instilling public confidence.

The good news: The majority of Americans are cautiously optimistic about their community’s ability to handle future disruptions, according to a new study of more than 1,000 U.S. consumers that explored how Americans perceive school infrastructure. The study found that 55% of people believe schools are better equipped to handle another major disruption to education, while 65% believe that schools have the necessary resources to manage students.

The not-so-good news: This public confidence doesn’t extend to their school’s infrastructure. Most respondents don’t believe their schools are in a better condition – or even safer – than they were five years ago. Educational institutions of all types, including K-12, private institutions and colleges and universities, have an opportunity to capitalize on the public’s confidence in school preparedness to alter this negative perception of school infrastructure. Strategic asset management (SAM) can help leadership create plans that optimize available resources and take long-term planning into consideration.

School leaders and facility managers can start now by leveraging data to capitalize on small, quick wins that maximize energy efficiency, improve emergency preparedness and grow public confidence.

Strategic Ventilation Upgrades
Improved ventilation systems in schools were a key infrastructure upgrade to support safer in-person learning even prior to the pandemic, yet nearly half of respondents expressed concern about the quality of air circulation in schools. Surprisingly, 63% of respondents said they would pay more taxes if it meant schools had better ventilation and filtration systems.

One thing to keep in mind is that HVAC is a major driver of energy usage, which is costly and can have negative effects on the environment. To strike an adequate balance, schools need to upgrade HVAC systems affordably and sustainably, and they can do so by harnessing data to make smarter decisions about energy management. School facilities managers need to start tracking data around energy and utility usage across buildings to inform strategic decisions. By utilizing energy management technology, facilities managers can more accurately benchmark energy usage trends and ensure preventative maintenance procedures for HVAC systems and more throughout their buildings.

Disaster Preparedness
Leaders also need to ensure that their school’s infrastructure can withstand the increasingly severe weather patterns we’re facing due to climate change through comprehensive disaster preparedness plans. More than half of the survey respondents indicated they are concerned about overall building conditions in schools, so beyond simply creating a comprehensive preparedness plan, it’s equally vital leaders communicate their school’s level of disaster readiness to the local community.

To begin creating a disaster preparedness plan, school administrators should start by collecting data and insights about their building, as well as the condition and maintenance history of individual assets and equipment. Ensuring this asset data is continually being collected and updated makes it easier for school administrators to implement effective disaster preparedness plans and communicate with stakeholders before, during and after a disaster. Understanding the state of building and equipment conditions before disaster strikes is an essential step to gaining community trust. It also ensures that rescue workers or facility managers are aware of the asset conditions and have the access to accurate information when stabilizing the facility after a disaster.

Transparency Leads to Confidence
Once educational institutions begin making informed and data-driven infrastructure upgrades, sharing these initiatives and their results with the community is vital to instilling further confidence. Data makes it possible for educational institutions to be transparent about how they’re making their spaces safer in the short-term while planning for long-term sustainability. For example, Des Moines Public Schools in Iowa started collecting data around energy usage across its 70 buildings and harnessed this data to develop “Energy Report Cards,” which were released several times a year with updates on ratings and savings. They also started distributing newsletters with energy-saving tips for classrooms. The process of collecting energy data not only allowed the school district to save money and limit CO2 emissions, but also to create clear data points to communicate their sustainability efforts.

As the American Infrastructure Consumer Study on education revealed, Americans believe in their school system’s ability to adapt, which was proven by resilient educators, facilities managers and operations leaders throughout the pandemic. School administrators must continue building upon the public’s confidence by leveraging data to inform strategic asset management (SAM) plans. Through SAM methodology, school leaders get a clear picture of the state of their school’s facilities, operations and maintenance. They can also understand the standing and life of assets, like HVAC or air conditioning systems, to inform data-driven decisions. With data at the helm and the ability to make informed decisions, educational institutions can address the critical issues facing school infrastructure today to ensure a safe space for learning and enhance visibility that ultimately grows public confidence. It’s with its constituents’ confidence that school leaders can drive sustainability.

Steve Roth is the SVP, Enterprise Sales, at Dude Solutions in Raleigh-Durham, N.C.