Helping school districts use federal COVID-19 relief funds to advance green schools

Published on: 
4 Aug 2021
Author: 
Michael O'Reilly

Feature image photo credit: Drazen from Adobe Stock.

Billions of dollars in aid are available to protect students and teachers from COVID-19 and to make schools more resilient to pandemic-related disruptions—if you know how to ask.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic spread throughout the United States, Congress passed three major packages of assistance: the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act); the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA); and the American Rescue Plan (ARP). These combined to allocate a total of $176 billion in emergency relief funds for K–12 schools. Within the funding, there are opportunities to advance the objectives of green schools.

The importance of a school's indoor air quality

When we think of pollutants, we often think about those found outdoors—such as plastic trash you see on a hike or an oil spill you hear about on the news. With so many visible sources to consider, it is common to overlook the conditions of the air inside your home, business or school as a concern. Indoor air quality (IAQ), however, is vitally important to health and education. Human beings spend about 90% of our time indoors, and poor IAQ is contributing to a decline in immunity against disease because of increased incidence of respiratory health issues.

Additionally, IAQ is critical to student performance and is strongly connected to health and well-being. A strong body of evidence has linked deficient indoor air quality at school with poor health outcomes and performance on standardized tests. A recent American University study found that exposure to air pollution in middle childhood had a much larger effect on test scores in the state of Florida than exposure during later adolescence. Breathable air that is free from pollutants is not only wanted in our homes, schools and businesses, but is needed for a higher quality of life.

Advice for green schools advocates

The federal funding aimed at fighting the effects of COVID-19 can be used to advance healthy, green schools. The Center for Green Schools at USGBC, along with its partners in UndauntedK12, recently hosted a webcast to help green schools advocates to understand the common misconceptions and possible hurdles to overcome in using federal relief funding to advance school infrastructure projects.

Sign into usgbc.org to access the free recording of the webcast to hear the full conversation. Here are some key takeaways:

What are the major differences between the CARES Act funds, CRRSAA funds and American Rescue Plan funds?

The CARES Act, passed in March 2020, was an initial emergency reaction to the pandemic to allow children to continue to receive an education, and the funding has almost been exhausted. CARES funding was focused on keeping teachers paid and offsetting losses in school budgets to sustain them for the rest of the academic year. CRRSAA and the American Rescue Plan are more holistic, and after advocacy by USGBC and other partners, include language to explicitly allow funding to be used on school facilities and on IAQ improvements. In terms of funding levels, the American Rescue Plan allocated around nine times the funding that was allocated in the CARES Act and over double what was allocated in CRRSAA to schools, so it is a much larger source of funding.

How would a school district use the funds available to them for a facilities project?

Many school officials have expressed uncertainty over whether these funds are available to be used on facilities improvements. This confusion may stem from their inexperience in using federal funds for school construction or from the various state interpretations of U.S. Department of Education’s guidance. However, the U.S. Department of Education has been very clear that school districts can use this federal relief funding on construction (see FAQ on the funding, questions B-6 and B-7).

Let’s say a school has an inefficient HVAC system that didn’t allow the best air quality measures to be put into place, and it needed to be replaced. This type of improvement clearly falls within allowable uses of the federal COVID-19 relief funding, because it directly relates to following the Center for Disease Control and Prevention air quality recommendations regarding fresh air and filtration. It also assists school districts in increasing energy efficiency, which will yield a long-term benefit from this one-time funding. The school district would include the replacement in its plan for the relief funding, along with the other uses of funding it is considering.

How can I advocate for COVID-19 relief funding to be used to further green schools?

Formulate a clear and straightforward request for the school district leader you plan to speak to. Research who will be the most influential person to reach at the district, such as your elected school board member or the superintendent. Be ready to share any data or examples about what your specific needs are. You can gain a deeper understanding of how COVID-19 relief funding can be used from the resource documents below; ensure that you have done your research, so that you can answer questions as clearly as possible.

All three federal COVID-19 relief acts can advance the objectives of green schools, as well as improve IAQ and quality of life more generally. Whether you are a student, a parent, a school administrator or a concerned citizen, it is important that you encourage your district to invest in green facilities that provide long-term benefits for everyone.

Additional resources

Download guidance from the Center for Green Schools