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Combine federal funds to clear the air and reopen schools

Combine federal funds to clear the air and reopen schools
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With the passage of the bipartisan $900 billion relief package in December, public schools across the country have received a much needed financial lifeline. Yet, as helpful as the allocated $54 billion in dedicated Department of Education grants will be, many schools remain closed while others prepare to shutter their classrooms once again. The severe negative impacts of distance learning continue to accumulate. Daily attendance and school enrollment are down, failing grades are on the rise and learning gains are slipping literacy and mathematics.

This need not be the case. Classroom learning — getting kids back in the classroom — can be safe, even as cases rise in the community, as long as strict control measures such as better ventilation and filtration are in place. 

With this aid package, Congress has finally recognized that school districts do not have the financial resources necessary to adequately respond to the pandemic on their own. That said, $54 billion in grants alone, unfortunately, will not be enough. Districts need to be considering how they can best leverage these Department of Education grants with other existing federal funds. 

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Enter the CARES Act. With the passage of the CARES Act last year, Congress allocated funding in the form of Community Development Block Grants for coronavirus response to states and local jurisdictions. Many do not realize that this can be used for our schools in combination with other federal funds.

Full, in-person schooling should only resume once safe. But, contrary to what some think, safety does not require large infrastructure investments. Mask wearing is cheap and effective and when paired with better ventilation and filtration can reduce exposure in classrooms by greater than 95 percent. A key element is to focus on achieving a total ‘clean air’ rate coming into the classroom, measured in air changes per hour, or ACH.

Schools, by design, are supposed to get approximately three ACH of outdoor air into the classroom through their usual systems, assuming typical occupant densities. But there are two problems. First, these are minimum ventilation standards that are designed for comfort, not for disease control. The target for classrooms during this pandemic should be between four to six ACH. Second, there is an even wider gap than first appears because although the code minimum is three ACH, many schools do not even meet that bare minimum. The average school only gets about one and a half ACH — half the minimum ventilation rate — and some get as low as one ACH.

We urgently need to address this to keep kids and adults safe in schools. The good news is that we can hit this target of four to six ACH through a combination of enhanced ventilation and filtration.

The quickest way to address this shortcoming is to put a portable air cleaner with a HEPA filter in every classroom. If sized correctly for the classroom, these ‘plug and play’ devices can provide up to four ACH alone. Combined with even an existing ventilation system running at half capacity, or paired with opening windows even an inch or two this would push most classrooms above five ACH. This is an easy stopgap measure to get schools through the winter and this pandemic.

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The question for many schools is not one of do they want to do this, but rather, how will they pay for it? While the conversation has focused on dedicated federal funding for improving school ventilation systems, $54 billion is not enough. But waiting for additional dedicated funding is the wrong approach.

Given CDBG funds for coronavirus are not limited to a single purpose, grantees should be strategic and weigh needs that garner the largest community benefit with prioritizing those that are time-sensitive. We believe that schools are such a need that meets these parameters and can best be served through a combination of federal funds. 

The loss of classroom time is not a mere short-term reality. It has long-term implications for our kids. A combination of Department of Education grants and CDBG funding for coronavirus can remedy this situation and support the creation of a healthier classroom environment right now.

The costs of keeping our kids out of the classroom are massive and growing. Improving ventilation and filtration, when combined with mask wearing, can help get kids back in school and keep them there during the pandemic. Funding is at hand to implement such measures and there should be no further delay.

Joseph Allen is associate professor and director of the healthy buildings program at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. David Mazzuca is an instructor at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and former assistant director at the Sandy Recovery Division, State of New Jersey.