Guidance for schools in using COVID-19 relief funds

Published on: 
26 Mar 2021
Anisa Heming

The Center for Green Schools and its partners at UndauntedK12 are releasing guidance for schools, “Five Guiding Principles: How Schools Can Use American Rescue Plan Funding to Ensure Healthy, Resilient Facilities for Students and Reduce Energy Costs and Emissions,” regarding how COVID-19 relief funding can be used to repair and improve school buildings.

Between the relief bill passed in December and the American Rescue Plan passed on March 11, the federal government has approved $176 billion in emergency COVID-19 relief aid for K–12 schools. USGBC was among several groups that successfully advocated for the inclusion of facilities-related expenses as an allowable use of funds in these two bills. The funding headed to schools represents an enormous opportunity to support student needs during the ongoing pandemic and to address persistent inequities.

The one-time nature of these funds makes them an excellent fit for durable investments in facilities that will provide long-term health benefits and financial savings. If we can help schools make smart decisions about facilities repairs and improvements now, they can spend less on operations and utilities and stretch their dollars further in the years to come.

For that reason, we joined with UndauntedK12 to publish this guidance, which provides useful, actionable information for school districts as they consider how to use these relief funds to meet local needs. The resource identifies examples of school facility improvements, as well as curriculum and training that both align with allowed uses and provide long-term benefits.

School district staff around the country have been tapping into limited maintenance and operations funding to make the patchwork repairs and upgrades that are necessary to open schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. School buildings, in general, were ill-prepared to handle the demands of this moment. The 2016 State of Our Schools report, published by the Center and its partners, illustrated that schools are getting only about two-thirds of the annual investment they need to stay in good repair and meet modern educational needs. An estimated 41% of school districts need to update or replace HVAC systems in at least half of their schools, according to a June 2020 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

What’s more, research has indicated that as the percentage of students who qualify for reduced-cost lunch increases, the quality of the school building decreases, and students of color and those from lower-income households are disproportionately affected. Lower-quality school facilities are often serving low-income children, because of the dominant role of local property tax in funding school facilities.

One-time COVID-19 relief funding will not solve the longstanding underinvestment in school buildings, but it will provide welcome relief to school districts that have been using their limited funds to do unplanned repairs and upgrades to deal with the pandemic. In the current moment, as our guidance specifies, careful planning for the use of these federal relief funds on school buildings can benefit schools for years to come.

Education leaders have significant flexibility on how to spend these relief funds. The American Rescue Plan Act details 18 different uses of funds, including a broad range of school facility repairs and improvements. By investing some of the relief funds in improving school buildings, school districts have the opportunity to improve equity and health conditions and to provide long-term benefits and savings.

Read the guidance