Funding Opportunities for Mass. Schools to Invest in Indoor Air Quality & Heat Resilience
Written by Sharon Ron, MAPC senior public health planner, Paula Giraldo and Geri Medina, Massachusetts Asthma Action Partnership / Health Resources in Action
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) will be granting $100 million to school districts to improve ventilation and indoor air-quality to support healthy learning environments (hereinafter the HVAC Grant). Schools with high concentrations of economically disadvantaged students, English learners, and communities disproportionally impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic are given priority for this funding. Grant applications for FY23 are due on Friday, October 28. These funds must be obligated by 2024 and spent by 2026. More information is available here.
If you work in a municipality or are involved in your parent teacher organization or school board, please share this opportunity and the importance of investing in healthy learning environments with your school leadership. If you work in the school district, please consider applying.
Healthy Learning Environments Matter
Investments in school buildings can have a direct impact on students' health and academic achievement. Most Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors; children spend more time in school buildings than in any other setting, besides their home.1 Yet, many Massachusetts schools do not have adequate air conditioning or mechanical air ventilation to keep students and school staff safe from extreme temperatures, air pollution, or air-borne spread of disease - the latter was laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic.2 Many school buildings also lack operable windows and window shades, exacerbating heat and ventilation issues.
To be more specific, school buildings can pose a risk to students and school staff in the following ways:
- Health: High indoor air temperatures, combined with humidity can lead to heat exhaustion and heat stroke in schools.3 Persistently hot weather can exacerbate existing health conditions such as asthma and bronchitis.4 In Massachusetts, 12.9 % of children have asthma- among the highest rate in the country - and over a third (41%) of children with current asthma have missed school or daycare at least once a year because of their asthma.5
- Academic Performance: Exposure to high temperatures and air pollution can impair cognitive function, learning, and academic performance.6,7,8 Making learning environments healthier can reduce learning loss caused by absenteeism, reduce disparities in academic achievement, and improve long-term health and financial outcomes.
We know that communities, teachers, and administrators alike care deeply about the success of their students. Municipalities and school departments can collaborate to improve ventilation and indoor air-quality to support healthy learning environments.
1 Schools for Health
2 Massachusetts School Building Authority. (2016). 2016 School Survey Report.
3 Zamorodian, Z.S., Tahsildoost, M., Hafezi, M. (2016). Thermal comfort in educational buildings: A review article. Renewable and Sustainabile Energy Reviews, 59, 895-906.
5 Statistics about asthma | Mass.gov
6 Park, R.J., Behrer, A.P., Goodman, J. (2021). Learning is inhibited by heat exposure, both internationally and within the United States. Nature Human Behavior, 5, 19-27;
7 Taylor, L., Samuel, L.W., Marshall, H., Dascombe, B.J., Foster, J. (2016). The impact of different environmental conditions on cognitive function: a focused review. Frontiers in Physiology, 6, 372.
8 Lu W, Hackman DA, Schwartz J. Ambient air pollution associated with lower academic achievement among US children: A nationwide panel study of school districts. Environ Epidemiol. 2021 Nov 3;5(6):e174. doi: 10.1097/EE9.0000000000000174.
Frequently Asked Questions
Reducing Environmental Impacts of Outdated and Inefficient Heating/Cooling or Air Handling Systems
Municipalities have an opportunity to tie school HVAC system upgrades in with other municipal climate goals, such as net zero or energy resilience plans. An efficient and renewable energy system can reduce schools' long-term operational costs, building emissions, and reliance on fossil fuels.
For districts needing or choosing to do full HVAC system replacements in the near to medium term, ground-source heat pumps are a compelling technology to explore. Ground-source heat pumps are the most used technology by Massachusetts schools to divest from fossil fuel use. Historically, the cost of this technology has been a major barrier. However, the Inflation Reduction Act will provide all schools with access to funding for a significant portion of the cost of ground-source heat pumps, possibly making this technology the lowest-cost HVAC system option for those sites where it is technologically feasible. The $100M HVAC grant opportunity could help municipalities to leverage the huge federal incentive specifically for ground-source heat pumps, provided by the Inflation Reduction Act.
Other Resources for Advancing Health, Academic, and Electrification Goals in Learning Environments
- Massachusetts Asthma Action Partnership
- Contact your Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program regional office to understand how healthy learning environments can be a part of a broader municipal adaptation plan.
- Districts in Green Communities can connect with their regional contact person to discuss how to pair this funding opportunity with other resources that support building efficiency / decarbonization / climate resilience.
- In the coming years, utility partners will be focused on building electrification and equity. They may be able to provide rebates for certain building electrification technologies and support building assessments/modeling work.
- For schools in the Eversource territory, reach out to Kim Cullinane (firstname.lastname@example.org).
- The UMass Clean Energy Extension may be able to provide technical assistance as it relates to assessing specific building needs and climate-smart investments to improve air quality.
- The US Dept of Energy has an Efficient & Healthy Schools Schools can get technical assistance and those that join the campaign will be well-positioned to access $500M in grant funding that is expected this fall and specifically targets schools in low-income communities.
- And since asthma was mentioned above, here's a resource, Clearing the Air: An Asthma Toolkit for Healthy Schools by the Massachusetts Asthma Action Partnership , which provides policy guidance and best practices for creating a healthy school environment for kids with asthma.