One of the most productive opportunities for building and commissioning professionals is using available funds to improve the K-12 learning environment. Between the CARES Act (March 2020), the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (December 2020), and the American Rescue Plan Act (March 2021), Congress has approved nearly $190 billion to assist schools with additional burdens and responsibilities they’ve shouldered in the pandemic – including facility retrofits and/or remediation and equipment replacements.

There are over 98,000 public schools in the U.S. Public K-12 school buildings represent 7.8 billion square feet of building space or 85% of all K-12 building space. These schools, when occupied, are among the largest consumers of energy in the public sector. Across the country, schools spend an estimated total of $8 billion annually on energy costs, and many schools also have an aging infrastructure (according to the House Committee on Education and Labor, the average school building is roughly 44 years old).

This article is a resource for detailed nationwide and by-state K-12 school building and systems condition data, initiatives that have been undertaken, guidance for prioritizing work, legislative actions, and school funding opportunities.

The time is now to engage in the programs and actions that seek to use funds for K-12 facility improvements and preparation for the future.

Many publications have been released that describe school upgrade and facility improvement requirements and strategies. Several include resource information for federally and/or locally funded K-12 projects.

Let’s begin with a pre-Covid assessment: The June 2020 Government Accountability Office report, GAO-20-494, K-12 Education Report to Congress: School Districts Frequently Identified Multiple Building Systems Needing Updates or Replacement, examines (1) the common facility condition issues school districts identify in public schools and how they have done so and (2) school districts’ highest priorities for their school facility renovations and updates, and how districts and states fund them.

To capture and analyze K-12 facility performance data, GAO conducted a national survey of school districts, and also surveyed 50 states and the District of Columbia; and visited 55 schools in 16 districts across six states selected for geographic variation and other characteristics.

GAO survey building system findings: The graphic below, based on GAO survey data, is the estimated percentage of school districts in which at least half the schools need updates or replacements of key building systems or features:

In addition to the successful Denver Public Schools HVAC Readiness Project (case study with lessons learned) featured in our June 11 Checklist, the following materials are useful for developing and implementing plans that are specific to new construction and remediation of K-12 building systems for improving air quality, lighting, building enclosures, and carbon emissions as we move into the future.

1.      March 2021: UndauntedK12 and The Center for Green Schools, Authors. Five Guiding Principles: How Schools Can Use COVID Relief Funds to Ensure Healthy, Green Schools.

2.      April 2021: The Center for Green Schools and ASHRAE, Authors. Preparation in the Pandemic: How Schools Implemented Air Quality Measures to Protect Occupants from COVID-19. This report details how school districts have used air quality measures in their buildings to respond to the pandemic. The report puts additional data behind the case for school infrastructure investment. Schools relied on their HVAC systems to make buildings safer for students and teachers, but in many cases, these systems were outdated and/or not designed to support the recommended strategies. The report is the only known national view of air quality in schools during COVID: what school districts have prioritized, which actions they have taken, how they have made decisions, and what the consequences have been. The responses cover over 4,000 schools serving over 2.5 million students in 24 states.

3.      April 2021. New Buildings Institute, UndauntedK12 and the Coalition for Climate Education Policy, Authors. Why K-12 Should Feature in America’s National Climate Strategy focuses on strategies and market uptake for energy efficiency and zero-carbon strategies for K-12 schools, with examples and state by state statistics.

4.      June 2021. Center for Green Schools, K–12 Climate Action with the Aspen Institute, Authors. 3-part webinar series. Getting Schools to Zero Carbon. Attendees learned about the process of assessing scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions across a complex school system, different pathways for establishing reduction goals, and the various industry tracking tools for managing greenhouse gas emissions targets and progress over time. You can access event slides, resources, and recordings for free.

Federal and State Schools Programs and Legislative Actions

Government entities are stepping up to consider legislation for better K-12 school facilities, too.

January 5, 2021, Funding Law. The Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, 2021 (CRRSA), was signed into law on December 27, 2020, and provides an additional $54.3 billion for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER II Fund).

January 28, 2021, Funding Bills. The U.S. Senate (SB 96) and House of Representatives (HB 604) each introduced word-for-word identical bills, both entitled, Reopen and Rebuild America's Schools Act of 2021. These bills, not yet passed, would provide support for long-term improvements to public elementary and secondary school facilities, allocating funds to states and establishing a need-based grant program for local educational agencies (LEAs) to improve school facilities. The bills specify uses of grant funds, including carrying out major repairs, improving indoor air quality, and making facilities accessible to disabled individuals.

March 11, 2021, Funding Law.  American Rescue Plan (ARP) ESSER. The American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act was signed into law with an unprecedented $1.9 trillion package of assistance measures, including $122 billion for the ARP Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER) Fund. 

March 20, 2021, Funding Law. Congress set aside approximately $13.2 billion of the $30.75 billion allotted to the Education Stabilization Fund through the Coronavirus Aid Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER Fund).

The Congressional Research Service Report, School Construction, and Renovation: A Review of Federal Programs and Legislation was updated on August 31, 2020, and summarizes current programs, legislative activity, and funding for schools.

Local Schools Future Facilities Programs and Legislation

There are currently 91 K-12 schools spread across 20 states plus DC that are either verified or emerging as net-zero buildings. According to NBI and its Getting to Zero Database, “Schools are a prime candidate for rapid transformation as the building type and its occupants readily lend themselves to achieving zero carbon. Schools can drive down emissions more readily than other building types because they have good replication potential, are owner-occupied with strong stakeholder involvement, and are prominent in their communities.”

San Francisco Unified School District has board-approved policies and plans to phase out fossil fuel use by 2040. The Executive Summary of Sustainable SFUSD’s Carbon Reduction Plan states, “SFUSD is embarking on a multi-decade effort to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040. The technology exists to construct buildings that use no more energy than they generate, and all new SFUSD buildings will be built to this standard. In existing buildings, we will gradually replace gas boilers with electric heat pumps. Instead of burning natural gas, our heat pumps will operate using clean, renewable electricity provided by the SF Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) and by solar panels on our rooftops.”