Funding for Healthy Buildings and Indoor Air Quality Upgrades

Here’s how schools and universities can use CARES Act funding to pay for upgrades to their HVAC systems and other technology solutions to make their campuses safer.

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The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of indoor air quality and the need for proper ventilation in schools and institutions of higher education. CARES Act funding (the Education Stabilization Fund) can be used by K-12 and college campuses to pay for upgrades to their heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and other technology solutions intended to improve health and safety.

In this interview, Cheryl Aquadro, who is Johnson Controls’ K-12 Vertical Market Director, and Russ Garcia, who is Johnson Controls’ Area Manager and General Manager for Hawaii and California, discuss the grants that are currently available for these improvements. They talk about where and how those funds can be used, and also provide some helpful tips on how schools and colleges can acquire CARES Act funding.

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Interview Transcript: 

Robin Hattersley: It’s my understanding that new federal funding is available for campus facilities to make them healthier buildings. So specifically what funds are currently available or will hopefully soon become available for K through 12 districts and institutions of higher education? So, Cheryl, do you want to start?

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Cheryl Aquadro: Sure. I would be happy to. So as you remember for the Cares Act that was passed back in the spring of 2020, they established what was called the Education Stabilization Fund category, which had three components to it. The ESSER, which is Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, GEER, the Governor’s Education Emergency Relief, and then HEER, the Higher Ed Emergency Relief. And so within those packages, there was a 13 and a half billion for ESSER … I’m trying to remember it was like 3 billion, four GEER, and then HEER, Russ will talk about. And then kind of fast forward to December, those three funds appropriated more money. And I’ll just carve out ESSER, which had 13 and a half billion for K-12 in Cares. Then it became 54.3 billion in December. GEER, the same thing was funded with about 4 billion with some of the other money’s going to either higher ed or K through 12 or non-public schools. So Russ, do you want to kind of pick up and explain HEER under that situation?

Russ Garcia:  Yes. Thank you, Cheryl. So higher ed has gotten some much needed relief with the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. And they got their first round through the Cares Act, which was around $12 billion in funding to go to the campuses to use for anything related to defraying expenses or managing the COVID-19 pandemic. Fast forward to December with the Appropriations Act, the amount got doubled. So now campuses have $22 billion and all those funds have a direct allocation from the Department of Education to be used for anything related to responding to COVID-19. And those funds are going to be available to spend through 2022 and 2023. And be happy to answer more questions about what the funds could be used for.

RH:  Okay. So where can those funds be used? For public or private organizations, small schools, large college campuses, or maybe partnerships with other organizations? Who can use this stuff? Who gets this money?

CA: Sure. So from a K through 12 perspective, it is mostly public schools that are being funded under ESSER. Now, there are some dollars under GEER that could be sent to a non-public school because that is governor’s discretionary money. And in fact, the round in December under GEER had a specific carve out for non-public schools. One of the questions that you asked was, is it small schools, larger schools, partnerships with other organizations. So really for K to 12, it has nothing to do with size or enrollment and everything to do with the percentage of low income students that are in that school district. So whether small or large, the funding follows Title I formulas. So, again, it’s a calculation of that percentage as to who gets the dollars among the public schools.

RG:  Yeah. And Cheryl, higher ed it’s a little bit different, right? So higher ed, this funding is for nonprofit, for profit, and private colleges. And the allocations are based on the amount of financial aid that the campus gives out every year. Plus the number of enrollment leads to your allocation that you can receive to use for Cares funding. There have been a couple of competitive grants that have gone out for other campuses that didn’t necessarily get their fair share of the funding. But the majority of campuses across the country did receive a direct allocation from the Cares Act and then the Appropriations Act, with the same guidance to use the funds where you need it. And we’ve seen campuses use it for things like contact tracing, things like helping stand up distance learning programs, or to help with lost revenues or staff, or for things like with Johnson Controls, to create a newer, cleaner and safer environment, whether it’s around [inaudible], access controls, more visibility to occupancy tracking on campus, better ventilation. So as long as the campuses are using this funding to protect themselves, bring the students back on campus to help themselves through this time, they’re good to spend it.

RH: So Russ, you talk a little bit on the specifics of how this money can be spent. Can you go into a little bit more detail on what you’ve seen it being spent on or maybe being considered for and how they’re justifying the expenditures for a particular type of project?

RG: Yeah. What’s great is that they, they don’t need to really justify anything in order to receive the money. But when they go to report on the expenditures, they’re going to have to show the funds are being spent in several different categories. One of the categories, campus safety and operations. You’ll see campuses using that bucket for things like better ventilation on campus, better controls, better air quality on campus, those types of improvement measures. You’ll also see buckets on that expenditure form like helping with onsite staff or with putting wifi in place or purchasing sanitizer. It’s whatever the campus needs money right away to protect not just the campus infrastructure, but the student body and to help slow the bleeding of all the massive losses in revenues that the campuses have experienced.

RH: And on the K through 12 side of things, what is the money being used for, or being considered for, Cheryl?

CA: Well, very similar to what higher ed is doing, but what’s interesting about the K through 12 is that there’s actually 15 uses of funds, three additional adds from what was originally under the Cares Act. So while it was permitted under the Cares Act, testing, repairing, upgrading projects to improve indoor air quality, and also other facility measures to improve the health and safety. Those were specifically added into the text of the law. And so that really helped bolster what schools were already looking at doing with those dollars. And at Johnson Controls, we have been helping schools improve maybe their control system to have more clean air changes, ventilation, filtration, touchless entry, even skin temperature sensing. So, we had already under Cares Act money been doing some of that work for our customers. And then this really just strengthened the school district’s ability to look at the funds and say, “We know we need to get these things done for students and teachers to feel comfortable returning.” And so it was spelled out again in that legislation and they followed suit.

RH: Okay. So we’ve covered now what can be covered. What about stuff that shouldn’t be covered? You’re going to get in trouble if you try and get this covered under the Cares Act or some of the others act. And Cheryl, why don’t you start us off.

CA: Yeah. I would say that if you’re a school district, you’re for your school leader, follow your state guidance because I would not want to tell somebody what they could or could not do. I’ve read the 15 uses of funds and they are very broad. Even those seems that there’s 15 spelled out, they are pretty broad. But they’re looking at learning continuity, reopening, healthy spaces. And so really, if it falls in those categories, I feel like you’re going to be safe, but I would ask you to please go to your state for that guidance to make sure that you don’t do anything with … These are federal funds and you do need to handle them properly.

RH: Russ, what about on the higher ed side of things?

RG: Higher ed, it’s just a few things specifically. The campuses can’t use the money to spend on contracts that were already underway before the pandemic that was funded through another means, maybe a bond or something. So they can’t spend it on contracts already underway. And they can’t spend it on things like advertising to promote the campus’s efforts to try to increase enrollment or maybe retention. So those are there’s just few limitations for these campuses of what not to spend on. And as long as you can create the narrative that this funding is going to help the campus, bring students back on, safer environments, sustain the campus, all that can be captured in the reporting form. And haven’t heard that it’s going to get denied.

RH: And now, are these being provided through grants or through other types of funding mechanisms?

CA:  The ones that have been spending the most time talking about are formula grants, following that Title I formula, but I’m glad that you asked because there are some others that have been shared with school districts. So there was what they’ve called CRF, Coronavirus Relief Fund dollars that went to States and local governments. Many of those dollars have been shared with K-12. They have different deadlines. The ones that we’ve been talking about have some kind of far out deadlines, September of 2022 for Care, September of 2023 for the CRRSA. The CRF, I believe needs to be spent unless things change by December of 2021. And then we have seen some individual States putting out some competitive grants for either innovation or reopening strategies to get those funded.

RG: And for higher ed, the majority of it is a direct allocation grant that flows from the federal government Department of Ed directly to the campuses. So it doesn’t go through any sort of state body. So it is a one-to-one ratio with the Department of Ed. There are and have been some competitive grants that have come out that I mentioned earlier. It’s a competitive grant where they can compete to get additional funds because they didn’t necessarily get enough in their allocation. Expect to see more of that. And there’s also some additional direct funding for HBCUs and for profit campuses. And then another about 118 million for the Department of Ed to use as discretionary funding.

RH: Who needs to be involved in the grant writing or funding application process? Russ, why don’t you start us off?

RG: Well, I mean, it’s all gone through the So it’s a familiar system that these campuses use already where within the grants website it’s listed there. Here’s the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund here. It’s an allocation where they’re basically going in and accepting it. So most campuses have a grants department that are going in and accepting that allocation. There’s not necessarily a component where there needs to be a lot of proposal grant writing necessarily for this allocation because they’re accepting the allocation, figuring out how they’re going to spend it. And then they’re going to start reporting on that expenditures. However, for the competitive grants, they’ll likely need to get some sort of proposal writer in place to put a narrative together to try to win some competitive grants.

RH: Cheryl, what about on the K through 12 side of things?

CA:  This is where it gets fun for somebody in my position. It really depends on the state process where all of the dollars are … sorry, let me get rid of that. All of the dollars do go through the individual states to the districts. So because it’s a federal grant, it does have to be applied for, but that doesn’t mean that the application needs to look a certain way. So I’ve seen some states that have had very, very simple check the box applications at the state level, to some that are very, very detailed. They wanted cost and line items and things like that for how the money is going to be spent. So many States I’ve seen have some in place application tools where the school district personnel has a log in and they go into a particular tool and that’s how they apply for it. And then others are online forms that are submitted by the district to the state.

RH: So are there any other helpful tips on how to get these funds and are there any mistakes that you’ve seen that should be avoided? And Cheryl, why don’t you start us off.

CA:  I really, I don’t have a good answer for that because I haven’t seen since they’re Formula grants and they’re going to get the money as long as they they go through the certain steps that the state lays out that will get them the money. They could eventually reach a point where maybe they didn’t apply for funds for some reason and are not spending it on time. So they have to be spent by that deadline. Of course, that seems so far out. But when you think about life and it goes, you’ve got to go ahead and get a plan in line so that you have those dollars committed and spent by nine of 2022 and then nine of 2023 consecutively.

RH:  And Russ.

RG: Yeah. And with higher ed, what we’ve seen, in that first round of Cares Act, that funding was going towards triage. I mean, buying hand sanitizer, cleaning, setting up stations, setting up testing centers, contact tracing, helping to fund things that we’re losing money on, keeping people on site for the campus. With the second round and it being double the funding, we’re seeing campuses now start to implement some of those more longer term strategies. So now that we’ve known how to deal with the emergency, what are some of the sustaining things we can implement and invest in right now that’ll create some more certainties to help control the risk of infection on a campus? So that’s what we’re seeing with the second round is more of the longer-term plan to being implemented, whether that’s around infrastructure upgrades for a safer environment, or if it’s around dedicating some sort of contact tracing system, or putting staff in place that are going to help manage this type of crisis, we’re going to start to see more of those long-term plans being implemented with this Appropriations Act.

CA: And Robin, if I can add to what Russ just said, I’ve seen a lot of states guiding their school leaders to that very thing. Think about returns on investment. Think about longterm. Please don’t just spend this all in one quick place. Think it through and make sure that your priorities are known in that way.

RH: Well, and particularly on the K through 12 side of things, so many of our nation’s schools are so old. They could really use the help with infrastructure improvements. I think this is it’s definitely necessary.

CA: It does. It takes care of an issue that already existed. About a year ago, I was at a plant manager association conference presenting on indoor air quality. We really didn’t know what this pandemic was going to bring at that time. And it was a critical situation. The school leaders at that time were very concerned with indoor air quality in their schools, and that was pre-pandemic. So again, they’re in a situation where this is an opportunity to take those dollars and use it for something meaningful now and in the future.

RH: Great. Well, Cheryl and Russ, do you have anything to add?

RG: Yeah, we’ve even seen campuses now starting to understand that they can create spaces to treat emergency situations. Of whatever the pandemic is, whether it’s a hurricane, or if it’s COVID-19. And looking at their campuses, as “Where’s dedicated space we want to be able to treat?” And maybe convert that space to be an acute treatment center, to be able to process and handle events when they come on, and to create more resiliency within the campus infrastructure. So I expect to see more things like that moving forward.

RH:  So you’re talking about like flex spaces, so they can be like right now for quarantine spaces, but maybe for hurricane evacuation or tornado evacuation. Or perhaps there’s a mass shooting and this is where they muster when they need to evacuate type of thing. Is that what you mean?

RG: Yeah. Those are all good suggestions on that. And you take a student housing dorm, how do you isolate five of the floors and totally put a line around that to where you can control the airspace so that you can treat infectious diseases, whilst not having to move everybody out of the building, for example. So, dedicating a space for a certain use and being able to flex depending on whatever pandemic is happening.

RH: Anything else you think we need to cover? I know you guys have done a really good job. You guys are very knowledgeable about this topic. Any other necessary tidbits our listeners need to know?

CA:  Yeah. I would like to mention just some of the conversations I’ve had with some of our customers and school leaders is that they believe that school will look different in the future. We believe that we’ve proven that we need in-person learning, where some people thought, “Well, technology is going to take children away from the classroom.” We know now we do not want that to happen as a society for the most part. But that in turn, when you think about high school students, I do talk with school leaders who were looking at their buildings about maybe my high schoolers don’t need to come every day or every moment of every day. Maybe they need to be remote in some ways, maybe they need to be able to break off into teams in other parts of town. Maybe we need to make this a little bit more flexible for them. Maybe when they come to school, they don’t go to a particular classroom, maybe they’re in pods. So just thinking about how students are learning and what we’ve learned from the distance situation and applying that in the future. It’s very interesting how the facilities will play a part in all that.

RG: Yeah. And Cheryl, those are great points. And I think we need more of that and more good stories to tell right now, because all these campuses and districts, they’re spending the money differently based on whatever they’re facing in their local area. And it might be different. And there’s really no time to judge anyone’s efforts only to try to get support, try to share best practices. And so that each district and each campus could continue to pull each other up and learn from what are the benefits that we’ve gotten from this, what’s the silver lining that made us a better campus or a better district. So more success stories.

RH: Cheryl and Russ, thank you so much. You did a great job. And for more information on JCI Johnson Controls, where can people go? Do you have a website?

CA:  Yes.

RG: Yeah. And if you want to learn more about any one of our vertical markets, all you have to do to say Johnson Controls K12 or Johnson Controls Higher Ed and it should take your right to-

CA:  It’ll take you everywhere. That’s right.

RH: Thank you so much, you guys.

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About the Author

robin hattersley headshot

Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

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