North Carolina school districts need millions to fix HVACs; What it means for COVID transmission

As the CDC touts ventilation as a key component to reduce COVID-19 transmission, North Carolina public school districts face millions of dollars in deferred HVAC maintenance.

"I don't believe, as a whole across the state, that we were prepared for those things," said Allison Griffin, a teacher in Franklin County.

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) publishes a facility needs report every five years.

The latest report from 2015 revealed the state's needs exceeded $8 billion. HVAC-related updates accounted for $342 million.

Griffin said before COVID-19, air quality and mold in her school were a concern for her. Over the past year, these fears amplified under the threat of COVID-19.

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"It got me to wondering about ventilation across all of our schools, not just in Franklin County, but across the state. Are they going to be safe for the students to return?" Griffin questioned. "Is this going to be a safe environment for our students?"

The CDC's guidance for safely reopening schools strongly promotes improving ventilation. The CDC stated increasing circulation of outdoor air is key to maintaining healthy facilities and ensuring a reduction of virus particles in the air.

A study into New York City Public Schools further reiterated the impact of proper ventilation finding transmission risk decreased with mechanical ventilation.

Locally, school officials said despite multimillion dollars' worth of HVAC needs, their facilities are safe.

"I'm not concerned that they're going to get sick or anything like that from being in school, I am concerned about making sure that they have the best opportunity to receive education," said DPS Chief Operating Office Julius Monk.

Two years ago, Durham Public Schools estimated its HVAC needs totaled $171 million for the next 10 years.

The district noted in its 2019 Long Range Facility Assessment that HVAC needs formed the largest percent of overall maintenance needs.

Monk said since then estimated costs have increased. The district has upgraded filters per CDC guidelines and ran systems longer, which has led to some additional repairs.

Similarly, it will cost an estimated $349 million for Wake County Schools to fix all its HVAC-related needs, according to data provided by the district.

"Obviously with this many facilities we always have schools that are going to be in need of renovation just coming in line," explained Nate Slavik, WCPS senior director of maintenance and operations.

Douglas Congdon, WCPS program exec for facilities design & construction said HVAC is high on the district's priority list.

"It's critical. We need to understand so as we are looking at schools, we're considering where the funds are and where the needs are, we are absolutely looking hard at that HVAC component," Congdon said. "That's a key component of keep schools functional and safe for the kids."

Monk said DPS is in the process of hiring a firm to assess all its buildings' air quality and ventilation needs.

"Then we'll have a comprehensive plan for each one of our facilities, about how we're going to address our indoor air quality, whether it be through HVAC equipment, your roofs, windows, whatever the comprehensive plan that they develop comes up with," Monk said.

He said this is the first type of study the district has done due to lack of funds. He explained this assessment will be funded through federal COVID-19 relief money.

"Let's get it right, right? Let's not just replace light for light. We know that these types of pandemic and respiratory illnesses can really impact the way that we do business," Monk said. "We're in a new world now, and it's time to reassess those things and to move forward with a new plan to make sure that all of our facilities are ready to go for our students."

The conversation around improving air-quality and tackling deferred HVAC maintenance is shared nationwide. A 2020 report found 40% of districts across the U.S. needed to replace air and ventilation in at least half of their schools. The report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office also finding districts' prioritized safety over replacing building systems in recent years.

In North Carolina, Griffin believes a solution lies with state legislators.

"There's about $8 billion in school construction needs and North Carolina has not had a school construction bond in 25 years. So, it's past time for us to have that on the record, and have a bond passed to help," Griffin said.

She said while HVAC repairs are a problem every district faces, but not every district has the necessary county-level funding to fully assist.

"Our lawmakers need to help us right now, and lawmakers, putting those funds in place to improve our schools is not just for the teachers. It's allowing children to learn in a safe environment which is one of the pillars of education," Griffin said.

NCDPI said it is expecting to publish an updated statewide assessment in June.

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