School Reopening & Ventilation: Which California Schools Will Get Priority for AB 841 Funds to Upgrade their Building Ventilation Systems?

Posted on by Jeff Vincent and Mona Al-Abadi

DISCLAIMER: This blog discusses AB841 and provides an initial analysis to identify the schools likely to be eligible for funding priority. AB 841 funds are being administered by the California Energy Commission's California Schools Healthy Air, Plumbing, and Efficiency Program (CalSHAPE). For the most up-to-date info, visit the program's website: https://www.energy.ca.gov/programs-and-topics/programs/california-schools-healthy-air-plumbing-and-efficiency-program

Make no mistake about it: safely reopening schools amidst the COVID-19 pandemic requires that our school buildings have adequate fresh air ventilation and/or filtration to reduce transition risk. It is not the only mitigation measure needed, but it is an essential one. Why? Because COVID-19 is a respiratory virus that spreads primarily through close person-to-person contact and through the air in enclosed spaces with little-to-no fresh air coming in. Despite the CDC continuing to downplay the aerosol spread of COVID-19, the science is clear. Unfortunately, an alarmingly high number of classrooms across the U.S. and California have poor indoor air quality and woefully inadequate ventilation.

A 2020 study by researchers at University of California, Davis and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that only 15% of the public school classrooms they studied met the state’s ventilation standard. That means that 85% of them are likely woefully under-ventilated – a staggering reality.

Shared air should be minimized. Inadequate ventilation greatly increases risk of COVID spread when school buildings reopen to students, teachers, and staff.

Thankfully, some California lawmakers are choosing to help fix this problem rather than downplay it. Assembly Bill 841 (Ting, Chapter 372, Statutes 2020) established the School Reopening Ventilation and Energy Efficiency Verification and Repair Program (SRVEVR), which will provide up to $600 million for energy upgrades and to test, adjust and repair heating, air conditioning and ventilation (HVAC) systems in schools.

Image source: New York Times, Why Opening Windows Is a Key to Reopening Schools. By Nick Bartzokas, Mika Gröndahl, Karthik Patanjali, Miles Peyton, Bedel Saget and Umi Syam. Feb. 26, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/02/26/science/reopen-schools-safety-ventilation.html

 

The California Energy Commission, the agency overseeing the program, released draft program guidelines in late January 2021.

Rightly so, AB 841 also ensures that disadvantaged districts get access to these much-needed funds. As many studies have found, districts that serve lower income families tend to have the poorest quality school facilities and the fewest dollars to invest in their facilities. This, of course, was a key complaint in the Williams lawsuit in the mid 2000s.

To be eligible for AB 841 funds a school must be located within the jurisdiction of specified electrical or natural gas corporations (Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE), or Southern California Gas Company (SoCalGas)). We find that the vast majority (98%) of all K-12 public schools are located in one of these jurisdictions.

AB 841 also contains provisions to prioritize schools in disadvantaged or underserved communities. The bill requires that at least 25% of projects funded be in underserved communities and that all schools that are in an underserved community are offered the opportunity to apply for and receive grants before those schools that are not in an underserved community.

To help local and state leaders know which schools may be prioritized, we analyzed the bill's priority criteria to determine which schools would likely have priority. We used a spatial database of all schools in California developed by UC Berkeley's Center for Cities + Schools to identify schools.

The table below lists the specific criteria that AB 841 uses to define “underserved” communities and our findings on the number of public schools in California that meet each criteria, based on available data. A school must meet at least one of these to be considered underserved, which then gives them priority access to AB 841 funds.

In total, we find that about half (5,593 out of 10,307) of California’s K-12 public schools meet at least one of criteria 1 through 5. (Note: we did not analyze criteria 6.)

 

 

Definition

Number of Schools Meeting Criteria that are also in the specified utility districts

Criteria 1

Is a “disadvantaged community” as defined by subdivision (g) of Section 75005 of the Public Resources Code(g)“Disadvantaged community” means a community with a median household income less than 80% of the statewide average. “Severely disadvantaged community” means a community with a median household income less than 60% of the statewide average.

2,544

Criteria 2

Is included within the definition of “low-income communities” as defined by paragraph (2) of subdivision (d) of Section 39713 of the Health and Safety Code“Low-income communities” are census tracts with median household incomes at or below 80 percent of the statewide median income or with median household incomes at or below the threshold designated as low income by the Department of Housing and Community Development’s list of state income limits adopted pursuant to Section 50093.

4,646

Criteria 3

Is within an area identified as among the most disadvantaged 25 percent in the state according to the California Environmental Protection Agency and based on the most recent California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool, also known as CalEnviroScreen.

2,544

Criteria 4

Is a community in which at least 75 percent of public school students in the project area are eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals under the National School Lunch Program.

3,293*

Criteria 5

Is a community located on lands belonging to a federally recognized California Indian tribe.

25

Criteria 6

Lastly, the bill requires that funds are prioritized for schools with a boundary that is within 500 feet of the edge of the closest traffic lane of a freeway or other busy traffic corridor, as defined, or within 1,000 feet of a facility holding a specified permit issued pursuant to the federal Clean Air Act.

n/a

*Note: We included schools where at least 75% of enrolled students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals (FRPM) under the National School Lunch Program, whereas the AB841 criteria states “a community in which at least 75 percent of public school students in the project area are eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals” (emphasis added). It is possible that the demographics of a school’s “enrolled students” could differ from the students living near the school (“in the project area”).


Below is a downloadable list of California K-12 public schools that meet the AB 841 eligibility criteria described above, based on data availability at the time of this blog post. Please confirm your schools' eligibility independently of this list.

Downloadable List of California Schools Meeting AB 841 Prioritized Funding Eligibility Criteria, developed by UC Berkeley's Center for Cities + Schools


Hopefully, School Reopening Ventilation and Energy Efficiency Verification and Repair Program (SRVEVR) funds will be available soon and districts across California will be able to apply for and receive funds in a timely manner as more and more schools across California look to reopen.

While improving indoor air quality inside all schools may seem like an insurmountable challenge, it is not. In fact, the School Reopening Ventilation and Energy Efficiency Verification and Repair Program (SRVEVR) offers a solid roadmap for improving ventilation for any and all schools – even if they don’t get AB 841 money. There exists an arsenal of engineering controls that can be implemented, many of which are relatively simple. For example, single zone portable HEPA air filters can be used in each room to supplement ventilation.

In addition to SRVEVR guidance, schools should look at this school ventilation explainer video created by the University of California, Davis Western Cooling Efficiency Center (whose experts helped write the SRVEVR), the ASHRAE COVID school reopening guidance, and this living FAQ document created by seven of the world's leading scientists and engineers on air quality, aerosol science, aerosol disease transmission, and engineered control systems for aerosols. Importantly, school leaders should follow these guidances, which draw on peer reviewed research of the effectiveness of techniques and technologies. School leaders should stick to PROVEN technologies that reduce COVID risk and be wary of sweeping claims and/or slick marketing of new technologies. They may work but insist on seeing objective testing results – results from not just controlled lab environments but also from real world settings like active classrooms.

AB 841 is a step in the right direction to fixing deficiencies in California’s public school facilities. As a state, we need to focus on the immediate (reducing risk to facilitate schools reopening soon) and the longer term (fixing up our school buildings so they are safe and healthy everyday and ready to mitigate risk in a future health emergency).

AB 841 provides much needed funds for the immediate challenge. But many schools simply do not have enough money over the longer term to appropriately repair and modernize their schools. Analyzing recent years spending by California school districts on their facilities, we found that the majority of school districts underspend on their facilities each year. In fact, more than three-quarters of California’s students attend school in districts failing to meet minimum industry standard benchmarks for annual facilities maintenance and operations investment, capital renewal investment, or both. These school districts accumulate “deferred maintenance” across their school building inventory – minor items of disrepair that, when left unfixed, grow into larger more expensive problems and risk becoming health and safety crises.

Keeping up with basic health and life safety issues as well as ensuring our schools can accommodate a modern curriculum of specialized topics, group breakouts, and enhanced technology all require ongoing investment year after year.

COVID – and its inconvenient yet solvable reality of shared indoor spaces and shared air being the biggest risk – has shone a spotlight on our need to fix up our school buildings.