(p. 1) As the next presidential election gathers steam, extended school closures and remote learning have become a centerpiece of the Republican argument that the pandemic was mishandled, the subject of repeated hearings in the House of Representatives and a barrage of academic papers on learning loss and mental health disorders among children.
But scientists who study viral transmission see another lesson in the pandemic school closures: Had the indoor air been cleaner (p. 16) and safer, they may have been avoidable. The coronavirus is an airborne threat, and the incidence of Covid was about 40 percent lower in schools that improved air quality, one study found.
The average American school building is about 50 years old. According to a 2020 analysis by the Government Accountability Office, about 41 percent of school districts needed to update or replace the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems in at least half of their schools, about 36,000 buildings in all.
There have never been more resources available for the task: nearly $200 billion, from an array of pandemic-related measures, including the American Rescue Plan Act. Another $350 billion was allotted to state and local governments, some of which could be used to improve ventilation in schools.
“It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fix decades of neglect of our school building infrastructure,” said Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Schoolchildren are heading back to classrooms by the tens of millions now, yet much of the funding for such improvements is sitting untouched in most states.
Among the reasons: a lack of clear federal guidance on cleaning indoor air, no senior administration official designated to oversee such a campaign, few experts to help the schools spend the funds wisely, supply chain delays for new equipment, and insufficient staff to maintain improvements that are made.
Some school officials simply may not know that the funds are available. “I cannot believe the amount of money that is still unspent,” Dr. Allen said. “It’s really frustrating.”
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(Note: the online version of the story was updated Aug. 28, 2023, and has the title “Covid Closed the Nation’s Schools. Cleaner Air Can Keep Them Open.”)