Gov. Northam announces $500M investment to improve Virginia schools’ air quality


HOPEWELL, Va. (WFXR) — On Monday morning, Gov. Ralph Northam shared plans for Virginia to invest $500 million to improve ventilation and air quality in public schools, which secures the completion of nearly all currently planned HVAC projects.

More specifically, a statement released by Northam’s office says 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.

These ventilation systems not only clean and disperse air, but they decrease the risk of various airborne illnesses, including the coronavirus.

Northam made the announcement at Hopewell High School on Monday, July 26 alongside school officials as they celebrated the launch of their year-round school initiative.

This announcement marks the start of “Investment Week,” during which time Northam and legislative leaders will highlight proposals for allocating the Commonwealth’s $4.3 billion in available ARP funding ahead of the special session on Aug. 2.

“Air quality is a key part of maintaining safe and healthy learning environments for our students across the Commonwealth,” said Northam. “This investment will help families, educators, and students feel more confident about the quality of the air they breathe as we return to in-person learning five days a week this fall.”

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 about the projects they plan to complete in the next decade. Other than plans for new buildings and renovations, school districts’ most frequent plans were for HVAC repair and replacement projects, totaling 463 HVAC projects that amount to $623 million.

“Ensuring there is clean air in our classrooms helps assure staff and students that schools are safe places so they can focus on learning,” said Secretary of Education Atif Qarni. “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 each school division receiving at least $200,000. These funds will serve as reimbursements to divisions completing HVAC projects.

“This funding is incredibly important for schools across the Commonwealth in dire need of upgrading their ventilation systems,” said State Sen. Louise Lucas, Chair of the Senate Education and Health Committee. “I’m proud we can provide this necessary support on behalf of teachers, staff, students, and communities.”

“In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools have recognized the need to improve their air quality and HVAC systems,” said Del. Roslyn Tyler, Chair of the House Education Committee. “Now more than ever, this funding is critical to ensuring we provide a safe and supportive learning environment to students in Virginia schools.”

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

“When the special session convenes next week, the Commonwealth has the opportunity to invest in its future, beginning with its students,” said State Sen. Janet Howell, Chair of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee. “This investment is another prime example of how we will be utilizing American Rescue Plan funding to move Virginia forward and build on the investments of last year’s CARES Act funding.”

“Together with the localities, we are working to address school modernization needs across the Commonwealth,” said Del. Luke Torian, Chair of the House Appropriations Committee. “This partnership will support our collective efforts to create healthy learning environments for all of our students.”

In 2020, Northam directed $492 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to public schools and PreK-12 state-level education initiatives. This year, under the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act of 2021, Virginia received approximately $939 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) II funds.

Ninety percent of the funding was distributed to school divisions in January while the remaining 10 percent was set aside for targeted state-level initiatives to address the pandemic’s impact on students and schools. In addition, the American Rescue Plan Act ESSER III funds directly allocate $1.9 billion to school divisions, with an additional $211 million set aside.

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