ESSER ideas: 2 ways to boost learning with healthier schools

Buildings in more than 50% of U.S. school districts need major infrastructure work.

Tutoring and other academic interventions are not the only ways to boost student learning with your district’s ESSER relief funding. Here’s the story of two districts that devoted some of their money to infrastructure projects designed to create healthier and safer buildings and more comfortable learning environments.

Buildings in more than 50% of U.S. school districts need major infrastructure work while more than half the buildings in 40% of districts need HVAC upgrades, according to a 2020 Government Accountability Office analysis. Schools without lengthy maintenance backlogs have higher average daily attendance and a lower annual dropout rate, an Environmental Protection Agency study found.

Dublin City Schools, a rural Georgia district, used ESSER funds to install advanced building controls, including camera systems that support COVID contact tracing, says Chad McDaniel, the executive director of finance and business operations. The question driving the project was how administrators could arrange the school day around the demands of COVID safety precautions.

“We want to purchase tangible things rather than put in place programs that we couldn’t sustain,” McDaniel says.

The district now has cameras covering 100% of the space in its schools (except for bathrooms and locker rooms.) That visibility also helps administrators control traffic flow to limit visitors and minimize the number of people leaving and entering buildings. If a student or staff member tests post for COVID, camera footage can be reviewed to determine close contacts and whether quarantines are needed, McDaniel says.

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“Having visibility across campus is a very positive piece of the equation, not just for COVID but the overall safety and security of our buildings,” he says.

While ESSER funds paid for the equipment, the district plans to maintain these new systems with its annual budget. As part of the project, the district also hired a retired police chief to serve as its security director and is working with other security experts to take the system “to the next level.” “We feel like we’re in a better position now to address situations more proactively,” McDaniel says. “We haven’t scratched the surface as far as the things that we can do.”

Standing the test of time

Waukegan School District 60, just north of Chicago, spent $7 million of ESSER funds and $3 million of its own money to install advanced ventilation, filtration and building controls in its 15 schools and registration center, says LeBaron Moten, the deputy superintendent of operational supports and programs.

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The ESSER funds allowed the district to add air quality upgrades to a 10-year capital improvement project and fast-track the work. Its buildings are of various ages and have multiple mechanical systems so district staff went room-by-room to identify the improvements needed–such as air-conditioning, Moten says.

In some cases, the district had to remove ceilings and asbestos to install or upgrade ventilation systems. It then had to replace the ceiling and install new lighting. ESSER funds are enabling the district to make substantial and permanent renovations rather than minor repairs. “The big picture is improving learning environments related to air quality, which impacts attentiveness and a lot of other things,” Moten says. “We consider this a long-term investment that will stand the test of time.”

Both districts hired Johnson Controls, which designs smart building systems, to complete the projects. “Upgrading older, inefficient school infrastructure pays for itself through energy and operational savings, leads to better student outcomes and reduces climate change emissions,” said Nate Manning, president of Building Solutions North America at Johnson Controls. “Each dollar these schools have saved in energy and operational costs is a dollar redirected back into the schools’ priorities.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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