Northam proposing $500 million of federal aid to improve school air quality

Coronavirus

HOPEWELL, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced on Monday that he is committing millions of dollars to improve air quality in the state’s public schools.

For a few months now, lawmakers have been eyeing money sent from congress in its latest COVID-19 relief package. Many legislators told 8News they want to use the money for long-overdue school construction projects and improvements.

On Monday, Hopewell’s first day of its new “balanced calendar,” Northam announced that with $500 million committed from the federal American Rescue plan funds, a majority of planned HVAC improvements can be completed.

The general assembly has the final say on how the ARP money will be used. Though legislators will have to approve Northam’s $500 million plan during next month’s special session beginning Aug 2, the governor said he has lawmaker’s support.

“COVID-19 is still with us and not all school-aged children are eligible to be vaccinated,” Northam said at Hopewell High school.

He wants the money to improve ventilation and air quality in the state’s aging schools. More than half of the state’s school buildings are more than 50 years old and the price tag of a total replacement would be nearly $25 billion, according to a survey conducted by the Virginia Department of Education earlier this summer.

The survey found 62 percent of school districts have completed at least one HVAC renovation since March 2020, when Virginia schools first shut down last year. It said 12 percent of responding divisions had no planned HVAC projects in response to COVID-19. 

“High-quality air filtration systems have been shown to help reduce the presence of COVID-19 in the air,” Northam said.

$250 million is coming from the state’s portion of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds and another $250 has been matched by localities’ ARP or other relief funding, according to Northam.

“It will be very beneficial. We’ve done some surface-level work to improve our ventilation systems,” said Hopewell Superintendent Melody Hackney. “The most important thing that will do is increase the confidence level of our parents, many of whom are still nervous about sending their children back for in-person learning,” she said.

Northam’s office said school divisions can apply for a minimum of $200,000 each.

“Ensuring there is clean air in our classrooms helps assure staff and students that schools are safe places so they can focus on learning,” said Secretary of Education Atif Qarni. 

He said the funds will be granted as reimbursements to divisions completing HVAC projects.

“Following plans for new buildings and renovations, school divisions most frequently planned for HVAC repair and replacement projects, with a total of 463 HVAC projects amounting to $623 million,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “Governor Northam’s investment will secure the completion of nearly all currently planned projects.”

As calls for new schools get louder, the federal government has strict rules on how to use the ARP cash. It can’t be used to build new schools.

“We need some new buildings but we also need to modernize the existing buildings,” Northam said.

On Monday, the governor said he’s expecting money committed for entirely new schools during next year’s session and points to revenue from casinos and marijuana legalization to help construct new buildings as well.

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