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Northam announces funding for clean air in schools

Gov. Ralph Northam recently announced plans to invest $500 million to improve ventilation and air quality in public schools, securing the completion of nearly all currently planned HVAC projects.

The commonwealth will allocate $250 million in federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) funding for necessary ventilation upgrades, which will be matched 1:1 by local ARP or other relief funding. Ventilation systems clean and disperse air, decreasing the risk of various airborne illnesses including COVID-19.

Governor Northam made the announcement at Hopewell High School, joining school officials to celebrate the launch of their year-round school initiative. This announcement marks the start of “Investment Week,” during which the governor and legislative leaders will highlight proposals for allocating the $4.3 billion in ARP funding available to the commonwealth in advance of the August 2 special session.

“Air quality is a key part of maintaining safe and healthy learning environments for our students across the commonwealth,” Northam said.

In a recent report to the Commission on School Construction and Modernization, the Virginia Department of Education analyzed 117 Capital Improvement Plans (CIPs) from school divisions detailing the projects they plan to complete in the next decade. 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. Governor Northam’s investment will secure the completion of nearly all currently planned projects. 

“Ensuring there is clean air in our classrooms helps assure staff and students that schools are safe places so they can focus on learning,”  Secretary of Education Atif Qarni said. “We know high quality ventilation systems reduce the number of virus particles in the air, and this investment means that Virginia schools will have updated HVAC systems for years to come.” 

 Funding will be allocated to school divisions based on their average daily membership, with a minimum allocation of $200,000 per school division. The funds will be granted as reimbursements to divisions completing HVAC projects.

“In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools have recognized the need to improve their air quality and HVAC systems,” Delegate Roslyn Tyler, chair of the House Education Committee, said. 

Every schools in Virginia is required to make in-person instruction available to all students in the 2021-2022 school year, pursuant to Senate Bill 1303 which was passed during Virginia’s 2021 special session. 

In 2020, Governor Northam directed $492 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to public schools and pre-K to 12 state-level education initiatives. This year, Virginia received approximately $939 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) II funds under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act of 2021. Ninety percent of the funding was distributed to school divisions in January, with the other 10% set aside for targeted state-level initiatives to address the impact of the pandemic on students and schools. Additionally, the American Rescue Plan Act ESSER III funds directly allocate $1.9 billion to school divisions, with an additional state set aside of $211 million.