“Given the excellence of educators in our state, I love the idea that our buildings could match that level of excellence,” CEA President Kate Dias told officials gathered today for a news conference at a school in Old Wethersfield announcing new funding to improve school ventilation systems. Governor Ned Lamont has proposed using $90 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to establish a grant program to assist public school districts in paying for HVAC system upgrades and other indoor air quality improvements.
“Our school buildings are old. In a state that’s more than 300 years old most things are old, that’s how it goes here,” Dias said. “I have worked in a school building that suffers with no air conditioning and poor ventilation. I often speak about the fact that I am on the second floor in a building built in the 1950s that gets easily above 90-95 degrees on a regular basis.
Saying that CEA has advocated for decades for improved air quality in schools, Dias said the governor’s proposal feels like a validation of the work that teachers do on a daily basis. “It feels like an acknowledgment of how hard the job is when the conditions are difficult—and our working conditions are students’ learning conditions.”
Explaining that the need for new and updated HVAC systems is about much more than comfort, Dias said CEA has seen an uptick in workers’ compensation claims related to poor indoor air quality. “This is about ensuring that we have safe and healthy communities.”
“Safety has to be at the core of everything we do,” said State Board of Education Chair Karen DuBois-Walton. “We can’t expect the best for our young learners, we can’t expect the best for our educators if we haven’t first provided the safest experience.”
She added, “I’m just thrilled that there’s this recognition that we have to provide these very basics.”
Hanmer Elementary School in Wethersfield, where the news conference was held, was recently retrofitted with a new ventilation system for rooms that previously had none. The school, built in 1967, has no windows in its music room, and prior to the HVAC upgrade a few months ago the music room was out of commission for the entire pandemic.
“It’s exciting to see a building like this that we’re able to retrofit. Because I think that’s part of the equation. We can’t build new schools in every town,” said Dias.
Just as the state is using federal funding to rebuild bridges and roads, Governor Lamont said that some schools are also in need of rebuilding. “That means a new school in many cases. That means loving an old school, like the one we’ve got right here. Everybody likes to do the flashy thing—the new gym, the new wing, and stuff like that. It’s not as flashy to do a ventilation system, but it’s just as important.”
Department of Public Heath Commissioner Manisha Juthani commended the governor for taking this step to improve schools and help protect educators and children.
“This is their home away from home,” she said. “And we know that the air they breathe here every day, all day, is so influential to their health. When we think about other health ramifications, whether it is respiratory viral diseases that happen every year, whether it is asthma or other conditions that can impact health, having good air quality in a school is exquisitely important.”
Katie Dykes, commissioner of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said that improving school HVAC systems is also a component of addressing a major challenge facing the state: climate change. “We had school closures last year due to high heat, which is a public health and safety concern. Our schools were not designed for this kind of heat that’s starting earlier and earlier every year.”
Commissioner of Education Charlene Russell-Tucker said that of the $995 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds allocated to schools, districts have already allocated approximately $165 million specifically to air quality.
“With the state saying we still need to do more, it really shows our commitment,” she said. “As I look at our colleagues here, state agency heads, union representatives, we’re in this together. It’s all hands on deck for our kids and our staff, and we’re going to make it happen.”
“The teachers of Connecticut are going to be really excited to see these indoor air quality issues addressed,” Dias said. “At CEA we’re going to continue to push the legislature and ask for additional standards to be put into place. We look forward to continuing to work together.”
Improving indoor air quality in schools is one of CEA’s top legislative priorities this year—find out more.
The legislation the governor has proposed to assist public school districts in paying for HVAC system upgrades is currently under consideration by the Connecticut General Assembly’s Education Committee. To stay up to date on everything education related going on at the legislature this session, subscribe to the CEAdaily.