Here’s What Schools Actually Did With The Billions In COVID Bucks Meant For Improved Ventilation

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Dylan Housman Deputy News Editor
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Despite schools being shut down for months and receiving billions of dollars to install high-quality air-filtration systems during the COVID-19 pandemic, most of them never installed those systems, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report.

Nearly two-thirds of schools have no plans to install higher quality heating and air systems, including high-efficiency particulate air-filtration (HEPA) systems, according to the CDC. Instead, roughly 70% of schools said they were using other low-cost steps to improve air filtration, such as opening windows and moving meetings outside.

School districts had only spent about 7% of the $122 billion allocated to them in the American Rescue Plan as of May, according to The Wall Street Journal, citing Department of Education data. School districts that were unable to install new ventilation systems asked for an extension to the spending deadline in May due to supply chain issues, which the federal government granted.

Air filtration is still a key element of the strategy to combat COVID-19 even with a majority of schools reopened for in-person learning. Earlier this month, the Biden administration listed high-quality air filters as a critical part of fighting the new Omicron subvariants causing a surge in cases of the virus worldwide.

Keeping schools closed until new HVAC systems could be installed was unrealistic, according to The WSJ. School officials and HVAC companies said it could take millions of dollars and several years to replace a central air system at a large school, with closures and disruptions to class likely to result.

Additionally, it’s unclear how much a central air system actually helps against COVID-19. Odis Johnson, executive director of the Center for Safe and Healthy Schools at Johns Hopkins University, told The WSJ that research doesn’t exist which proves centralized HVAC systems are better for COVID-19 prevention than natural airflow or stand-alone units.

Rather than make major changes to air filtration, some schools are preparing for the new year and the spread of Omicron subvariants by reinstituting other policies, such as mask mandates. (RELATED: School District President Says Kids Who Don’t Want To Wear Masks Can Just Stay Home)

Meanwhile, instead of using the American Rescue Plan funds for new ventilation systems, schools have spent them on projects like equity programs and playground equipment.