$130B bill would aid school COVID fight

U.S. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., speaks at Jefferson Community College in Watertown last year. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — Educators nationwide have expressed concern over the state of public school buildings and their ability to combat the spread of COVID-19 among students, and Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand wants to help.

Gillibrand, D-N.Y., on Tuesday unveiled the Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act of 2021 — legislation that would commit $130 billion in federal funding to public schools nationwide, to allow them to adapt ventilation systems and make other needed building improvements.

The senator described how, even before the pandemic, many public school buildings were outdated and potentially hazardous after years of lackluster investments. The senator referenced a 2016 report from The Center for Green Schools, which found that national spending on school facilities was about 32% less than what was required to maintain modern standards. That represents about $46 billion in underspending.

“Now, the consequences of that negligence are even greater,” she said.

According to a Government Accountability Office report from June of last year, four in 10 school districts in the country need to update or replace their heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems in at least 50% of their buildings just to maintain safe and efficient operation.

With the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now considering heating, ventilation and air conditioning — or HVAC — capabilities at the top of their list for safe school reopenings, Gillibrand said it’s more important than ever that public-school facilities see investment and renovation.

“COVID has highlighted the inequities that have been part of our school system for too long,” she said.

The funding would not be focused just on coronavirus-related projects, but would allow districts to make a wide variety of facility upgrades.

“They can use it to improve any structural building concerns, such as HVAC, interior or exterior lighting, plumbing, electrical systems, fire protection systems,” Gillibrand said.

The funding could also be used to upgrade broadband infrastructure, address mold or water quality concerns, or purchase new learning equipment. But it cannot be used for sports facilities or anything unrelated to improving education for students.

“Not new football fields, but yes, computers,” the senator said.

The $130 billion would be split into two parts — with $100 billion devoted to grants to be used for most schools and another $30 billion raised through bonds and committed to high-risk schools with especially deficient facilities that pose health and safety risks.

Gillibrand said she hopes to roll the bill in with the next round of coronavirus aid legislation currently being negotiated in Washington. She said the bill is already included in President Joseph R. Biden’s Build Back Better economic recovery plan, which calls for $130 billion in emergency funding to shore up school facilities.

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