More funding needed to improve air quality in CT schools, group says

Erin Browne

With the General Assembly’s budget-adjustment session starting next week, the lobbying group representing Connecticut’s towns and cities has issued a legislative agenda that includes more funding to upgrade air-quality systems in the state’s 1,200 public schools.

And as the COVID pandemic lingers, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities — which issued the request in a list of goals for the 12-week session that starts Feb. 9 — has an ally in the Connecticut Education Association, which represents state teachers.

Their position seems strengthened by a new state survey on public schools that indicates that by 2025, at least $171 million is planned to upgrade important school building equipment, including heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

Nearly 80 percent of local school officials who responded to the survey said they routinely hire expert engineers or contractors to inspect their mechanical systems, while 21 percent admitted those inspections have not been done.

State Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney on Monday said that deferred maintenance is to blame for some of the state’s school ventilation problems that have become more crucial to staff and student health during the airborne coronavirus pandemic.

“Towns have gotten huge state grants for school construction that they are not willing to spend the money to maintain the equipment that the state has paid so much for,” said Looney, D-New Haven. “Our response is in part that the fault here is in the school systems that do not do regular maintenance on their HVAC systems.”

Joe DeLong, executive director of the CCM, said Monday that the HVAC funding issue dates back to last September when a coalition, including public-sector unions, pointed out the need to add money because of the importance of school air quality in the pandemic.

“The state has a grant program that recognizes there is an end of life for roofs and for windows and will help participate in those programs,” DeLong said. “We should treat HVAC the same way.”

While conceding that some towns might not maintain their school HVAC systems properly, even those that are kept up-to-date have limited lifespans, DeLong said.

Kate Dias, president of the CEA, said the state facilities report issued last week indicates that only a third of Connecticut’s 1,200 schools are fully air conditioned and many schools have only scattered use of window air conditioners, mostly for classrooms with students who have respiratory ailments, or administrative offices with employees who are there 12 months of the year.

“Many are still relying on opening windows and crossing fingers on cool days,” Dias said, citing the new report, which lacked data from Danbury, New Britain and other communities. The survey says that 78 percent of schools have some kind of air quality program. Seventy percent reported that their repair and replacement plan is sufficiently funded.

“If we want to attract people to Connecticut, we need to invest in infrastructure,” Dias said. “We have to look at education as an asset that can contribute to our success story.”

The CEA has also asked the state’s congressional delegation to assist in procuring federal funding to repair and rehabilitate old HVAC systems, as well as install new air-conditioning equipment.

Josh Geballe, commissioner of the state Department of Administrative Services, released the survey Friday, meeting a deadline for submission to the General Assembly.

“Evaluating the safety and quality of our school facilities has always been critically important; however, the pandemic has made the issue even more pressing,” Geballe wrote in the introduction to the survey, which was responded to by most local education professionals.

“Collecting and analyzing the data captured by this survey is central to understanding the condition of our school facilities, including air quality standards, ability to socially distance, and cleaning protocols — all essential information as we work to keep Connecticut’s children, teachers, and staff safely in school, in-person during the pandemic and beyond.”

State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, of Waterford, a top Republican on the legislative Education Committee, said Monday that air quality in the state’s schools will be a major subject in the session that starts next week and finishes May 4.

“I think we’re all concerned about it,” McCarty said. “Health has to be the No. 1 issue. We can’t have our students in school not breathing good air.”

She said that HVAC upgrades and maintenance should be included in school construction project estimates and allocations.

“We need to alleviate some of the cost for the municipalities,” McCarty said. “I think we need to do a lot of research. There are schools where the air quality is an issue. I don’t want to see any students in a classroom that doesn’t have good air quality.”

[email protected] Twitter: @KenDixonCT

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