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Updated: Northam proposes $250 million in federal aid to upgrade - but not replace - school buildings
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Updated: Northam proposes $250 million in federal aid to upgrade - but not replace - school buildings

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Northam tours Hopewell school, talks education and budgets

HOPEWELL — With students preparing to return to public schools, Gov. Ralph Northam is proposing to use $250 million in federal emergency aid to help school divisions upgrade the ventilation systems in school buildings.

In an appearance at Hopewell High School on Monday, Northam said the state will use a portion of the $4.3 billion that it received under the American Rescue Plan Act for its share of the cost of school upgrades, but local governments will have to match it with money they receive under the federal COVID-19 relief package or other funding.

“Air quality is a key part of maintaining safe and healthy learning environments for our students across the Commonwealth,” the governor said in a statement. “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.”

The federal aid can’t be used to replace old and decrepit school buildings, even though some localities say that would be a more effective way to address health and safety issues.

“The money is being set aside to deal with [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] upgrades,” said House Appropriations Chair Luke Torian, D-Prince William, in an interview on Monday. “It’s not money being set aside to put up new buildings.”

“We want to make sure we have facilities ready for in-person learning this fall,” Torian said. “It’s what the money was designed to do, to help with critical maintenance issues.”

The General Assembly will meet in special session beginning next Monday to determine how to spend the state’s share of federal aid under the American Rescue Plan Act, which President Joe Biden signed on March 11. The package includes $360 billion for state and local governments to help them recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When the special session convenes next week, the commonwealth has the opportunity to invest in its future, beginning with its students,” said Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, chair of the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee.

In addition to the state’s $4.3 billion share, local governments in Virginia received nearly $3 billion in aid under the law. The state also received $221.7 million for eligible capital projects, limited primarily to water, sewer and broadband telecommunications.

School construction has become a politically sensitive issue as local school divisions have asked for state help to replace old school buildings. State officials say that is primarily a local government responsibility, although Northam had hoped to be able to use a portion of the federal aid to help localities address the need.

“There are schools throughout Virginia that not only need to be modernized, but we need to build new schools,” Northam said in an interview. He later added that the state has earmarked money from the state’s casino revenue, along with expected revenue from marijuana legalization, to fund school initiatives, including construction.

“We’ll be coming up with a plan this fall of how we build new schools in Virginia. ... This is a nonpartisan issue. We all agree that we need new schools,” he said.

In the announcement on Monday, the governor’s office also noted that he had directed $492 million in federal aid to public schools under the CARES Act — a $2.3 trillion emergency relief package adopted 16 months ago. Virginia school divisions also received $939 million in direct aid under the Consolidated Appropriations Act that Congress adopted at the end of last year, and $1.9 billion in direct aid under the American Rescue Plan Act.

“Together with the localities, we are working to address school modernization needs across the commonwealth,” Torian said in a statement accompanying the announcement. “This partnership will support our collective efforts to create healthy learning environments for all of our students.

State education officials and assembly leaders said the aid would help school divisions carry out deferred maintenance that is critical to student health and safety.

“We are eager to learn more about how much funding would be allocated to RPS in the Governor’s proposal and will absolutely match any funds necessary to maximize such allocations and continue to implement our strategies,” Matthew Stanley, a spokesperson for Richmond Public Schools, said in a statement.

Stanley said Richmond had begun making “significant upgrades” to its schools using federal money — about $9 million of $54 million in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding for upgrades ahead of fall reopening.

The division has work in progress when it comes to HVAC improvement and maintenance, according to a reopening dashboard on the district’s website, which was last updated on July 19 and includes a section on facility upgrades. The dashboard, created at the request of the Richmond School Board, outlines the division’s progress toward safe reopening milestones like fixing bathrooms, hiring custodians and training nurses. It indicates 36% of the city’s schools have HVAC improvements in progress or in need of completion ahead of school reopening.

The district has not completed installing a majority — 72% — of the HEPA filtration units meant to purify air of COVID-19 particles in classrooms but has completed all but 4% of its plumbing work in bathrooms.

In Hopewell, Superintendent Melody Hackney said the HVAC money will be beneficial to the school division and hopes it will build trust for parents to send their kids back to in-person learning. On Monday, the Hopewell school system became the first in the state to implement a year-round school calendar.

“We’ve done some surface-level work to improve our ventilation systems,” she said in an interview, “but I think the most important thing that we’ll do is increase the confidence level of our parents, many of whom are still a little nervous” about sending their children back.

“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,” said Secretary of Education Atif Qarni.

Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, chair of the Senate Education and Health Committee, said the proposed funding “is incredibly important for schools across the commonwealth in dire need of upgrading their ventilation systems.”

Del. Roslyn Tyler, D-Sussex, chair of the House Education Committee, called the funding “critical to ensuring we provide a safe and supportive learning environment to students in Virginia schools.”

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