COVID-19 and Schools

How Stimulus Funding Can Tackle School Infrastructure Updates

By Tyler Haak

As schools and universities prepare for the return of students and faculty after nearly a year of remote learning, many are faced with growing concerns around how to keep facilities safe in the post-pandemic world. This is doubly true when considering that crucial HVAC and building management systems (BMS) are often outdated and in need of replacement.

Luckily, there is an unprecedented amount of government funding available to aid school districts in need of facility upgrades—but these funds won’t last forever. Now is the time for schools to take advantage and make long-overdue building upgrades that will allow them to better manage and maintain their facilities for years to come and improve student health and performance.

Unprecedented funds bring unprecedented opportunity

Since the pandemic began, the federal government has made $190 billion in funding available through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund. This fund was established and expanded through the three pandemic-era federal stimulus bills and is accessible via local educational agencies at the district and state levels.

While the funding can be used by both public and private PreK-12 schools, it does have an expiration date. The first round expires at the end of September 2022, with some subsequent funds expiring a year later in 2023. This gives schools time to act, but they must do so soon to ensure they get a piece of the available funding before it runs out.

Although approximately 10 percent of the funds have been earmarked specifically to target loss of learning, most is available for a broader category of needs. This includes everything from PPE supplies and mental health services to the modernization of HVAC, building and IT systems. While all are important, the latter should not be overlooked. Many schools are in desperate need of facilities upgrades, with the 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure finding that 53 percent of public school districts need to update or replace multiple building systems. Even more concerning in the current climate is nearly 41 percent of schools reported issues with HVAC systems specifically. The ESSER funding provides schools with a unique opportunity to make these needed system upgrades that will benefit them for years to come.

The benefits of upgraded infrastructure – improved health, better student performance, cost savings and positive environmental impact

COVID-19 has changed how indoor spaces impact our health—and rightfully so. HVAC upgrades are particularly crucial in light of new reports suggesting proper indoor air quality (IAQ) and masks provide greater protection than social distancing. With a recent ASHRAE study finding 89 percent of surveyed schools prioritized increasing outdoor air supply through existing HVAC systems to mitigate risks brought on by the pandemic, the need for these systems to operate efficiently and effectively has never been more important.

In fact, a University of Central Florida study found that combining a ventilation system with an air filter could reduce the risk of infection by up to 50 percent compared to a classroom with no ventilation. By creating a steady current of air flow that circulates aerosols into a filter that can remove a portion of them from the air, an upgraded ventilation system can increase the health safety of students and staff. The use of HEPA filters has also proved effective in reducing the risk of disease transmission, as they are no less than 99.7 percent efficient at capturing human-generated viral particles according to the ASHRAE report.

In addition to considerations around disease transmission, there is growing evidence that student performance can improve with the right ventilation system. Why? High levels of carbon dioxide (from exhaled breath) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs, i.e., airborne pollutants) can be harmful to human health. Experts recommend up to six air changes per hour to minimize infectious pathogens, even though the code only requires three air changes per hour. This means under the current code the average classroom likely only gets half the recommended amount due to aging or misused equipment.

Aside from health and wellness benefits, there are also cost savings that come with upgraded equipment. The additional air changes per hour needed to minimize pathogens require more energy and put more of a strain on aging building systems. Modern, high-efficiency HVAC systems, however, feature advanced monitoring capabilities and connected products that allow them to operate more efficiently. This means they can do more with less, leading to cost and energy savings versus older equipment.

There are also environmental impacts to be gained from facility upgrades. Not only is there increasing strain on energy management systems to cope with rising temperatures and extreme weather events, but there’s also a need to prioritize sustainability measures that will prevent further environmental harm and ensure energy is being used efficiently. With upgraded technology, schools will have more control over their energy usage and the ability to monitor 24/7 to ultimately reduce energy waste.

Making system upgrades a reality

Given all the benefits of modernized infrastructure coupled with the government funding available to support it, the next step for schools is making these facility upgrades a reality. Luckily, there are many ways to go about this process of modernizing HVAC and building management systems (BMSs), from quick wins to complete overhauls.

Most older HVAC systems require manual operation or run-on pneumatic controls, making them much less efficient and effective than what’s currently available on the market. Today’s advanced digital BMSs give HVAC systems a powerful brain that includes cloud analytics abilities, giving facility managers real-time visibility into performance and energy use. This allows them to proactively manage systems and predict equipment failure before it happens, which is crucial for HVAC systems that need to be operating at their best to keep students and faculty safe from airborne pathogens.

Upgrading to modern HVAC equipment—chillers, air handlers, and economizers—would also make an impact. Aging HVAC systems can sometimes fight themselves thanks to poor system calibration, by running AC during the winter and heat during the summer. While the ideal solution would be installing a new system that can heat, cool, and ventilate buildings better using far less energy, there are less costly and labor-intensive options that can also address the issue. This includes enabling lock-out controls that prevent simultaneous heating and cooling.

Another valuable way to put these funds to good use (if a school secures enough resources to do so) is an upgrade of IT systems that can connect to the disparate systems and sensors throughout an entire facility. Modern BMSs have the capacity to synthesize the data from these various systems and process it in an efficient and meaningful way. For example, the IT system could acquire, clean and visualize data from heating, ventilation, and air conditioning machine systems, as well as provide insights into which machines are operating efficiently or which may need a repair. This is where predictive maintenance could also come into play, as these more advanced devices are able to alert to needed repairs and facility upgrades before they become drastic or negatively impact students and staff.

If a full upgrade to a modern BMS is too daunting for a school, they could also look to put funding towards smaller wins that will still make an impact. One such upgrade is adding occupancy and VOC sensors that connect to existing BMSs and provide a count of how many people are in a classroom or other space. They can detect overcrowding, stale air, and classrooms that need targeted ventilation increases, allowing for targeted and effective increases in energy use that also protect the health and safety of students.

Ultimately, depending on how much stimulus funding they’re able to secure, schools can make a big impact on student health and performance, long-term maintenance costs and the environment if they embrace facility upgrades that are desperately needed thanks to aging infrastructure. Recent stimulus has provided an unprecedented opportunity for schools to make these upgrades without needing to reallocate funds from other parts of the budget. It’s time they act.

Tyler Haak is the Program Director for U.S. Digital Buildings Federal Stimulus, Schneider Electric.

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