Sweeney: NJ schools need more money for COVID ventilation fixes
TRENTON – Public schools in New Jersey are being directly sent nearly $2.5 billion from the latest federal coronavirus recovery law – but say that’s still not enough to handle the ventilation improvements they need to install.
A Statehouse meeting on Thursday between Senate President Steve Sweeney, Senate Education Committee chairwoman Teresa Ruiz and representatives from 15 statewide education organizations was supposed to focus on the effective use of American Rescue Plan funds.
It instead morphed into a plea for help with HVAC issues – both affording the upgrades and smoothing the government bureaucracy that makes the projects take longer, even after the challenges of waiting out supply and demand imbalances.
“We found out there’s nowhere near enough money from what the feds have and what we’ve put in,” said Sweeney, D-Gloucester. “In order to get our kids back in schools, the buildings have to be healthy. So, HVAC has to be an absolute priority. And the way we’re set up, we’re not going to make that priority.”
“It was an eye-opening experience for me, what they’re dealing with to try to get their kids back in the classroom come September,” he said. “Because we’re all expecting our schools to open up again, and there’s just a lot of uncertainty right now.”
Sweeney said some of the concerns focused on government reforms, rather than physical or program issues. He said it should only require the input of an approved engineer to approve a project, rather than going to both the state Department of Community Affairs and state Department of Education.
“We need to really prioritize what we need to do to get our kids back safely in schools because September’s coming really quick, and for me, what I realized is there’s a lot of issues here that have to be addressed quickly,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney said HVAC issues have been neglected for a long time and are a concern both in old schools – pointing to Newark as having buildings that date to President Abraham Lincoln’s administration – and newer ones that aren’t fitted for the types of filters recommended to protect against COVID-19.
“There’s nowhere near enough money at this point, what the feds gave, to fix the outstanding problems that are existing right now. And this is going to take multiple years,” Sweeney said.
“It’s not going to prevent schools from opening, but it’s going to have people having concerns and questions about the safety of the buildings. That issue doesn’t go away now. When we open up six weeks from now, these HVAC issues are going to be very prevalent, and there’s a battle: Do we mask, don’t we mask?” he said. “People want to be in a safe environment. They want their kids to be safe. We want the teachers and the faculty and the staffs to be safe. The buildings aren’t going to be ready for that.”
Sweeney said he didn’t know if the HVAC concerns would make it more likely for districts to require masks and that it’s something people are still trying to figure out. He said steps need to be taken now “to make sure when we open the schools that it’s not chaos.”
“Schools are opening in September. That’s a good thing,” he said. “We want families to be comfortable, and we want faculty and staff to be comfortable when they go back into those buildings. And we have challenges right now.”
Sweeney said the state should be able to help schools pay for HVAC upgrades without taking on additional borrowing. He said $4 billion in federal COVID recovery funds to the state haven’t yet been allocated and that the state put $1.2 billion into a debt avoidance fund as part of the new budget.
“So, there’s money. Is there enough money? I have no idea,” he said. “But what I do know is fixing the HVAC systems in the schools isn’t a waste of money. It’s an absolute investment that needs to be made.”
In addition to heating and ventilations issues, the federal money is intended to be used to address learning impacts caused by the pandemic and online schooling, improving technology and helping the social and emotional wellbeing of students and teachers.
Schools have until September 2024 to spend the federal aid.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.