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New Mexico senator seeks better air quality in US schools

October 1, 2020 GMT

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich introduced a bill Thursday aimed at improving air quality in schools.

The Keeping Schools Safe Act would include $1 billion in funding for ventilation and air quality monitoring. It also would mandate the creation of coronavirus-specific technical guidance for heating, ventilation and air condition systems.

School districts across the country are struggling to balance the health risks faced by educators at risk for COVID-19 with parents’ and children’s needs for in-person learning. The challenges are unprecedented, Heinrich said.

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“That is why I am introducing this legislation to provide elementary and secondary schools with funding to improve air quality and ventilation – putting them one step closer to safely reopening,” the New Mexico Democrat said.

Heinrich does not have any Republic co-sponsors for the bill. It could join a number of COVID-19 relief bills that have stalled in the Senate.

On Thursday, the White House backed a $1.6 billion counter-offer from Republicans on a $3.4 trillion aid package passed by the House in March.

Heinrich’s bill focuses narrowly on air quality and supports in-person learning, a priority of President Donald Trump. It also would give final grant-making authority to the U.S. Education Department.

Antiquated ventilation systems have hindered a return to in-person learning across the country, forcing some districts to take children outside. Heinrich has advocated for more outdoor classrooms, but few schools in his state have embraced the idea.

In Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest school district, officials estimate improving ventilation systems would cost millions, and there’s no money from the state to do that, Albuquerque television station KOB reported.

Unsafe ventilation was a major factor in the district’s decision to remain online-only through the end of the year.

Under the legislation, the Department of Education would establish a grant program for schools in a variety of urban, suburban and rural areas. The bill prioritizes grants for schools that serve significant numbers of low-income students, but can be awarded to any school district.

The bill also mandates that 5% of grants go to schools managed or funded by the federal Bureau of Indian Education. Of those schools, 55 are in New Mexico.

The bill would require the DOE to provide technical guidance on airflow systems in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and industry organizations such as the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers.

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That’s information districts are looking for as they try replace or retrofit ventilation systems, said Stan Rounds, executive director of the New Mexico Superintendents Association.

Ideal systems would accommodate filters that could trap virus particles while allowing increased airflow. Right now, that’s not possible in many school buildings.

“The engineering of the units that they have won’t fit the required COVID ventilation,” Rounds said.

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.

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This version corrects that the bill prioritizes grants to low-income students but does not make area student income a requirement and that it categorizes grants for 55 New Mexico schools, not three dozen.