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Change of heart: Lamont now supports helping schools cover costs for air ventilation upgrades during pandemic

Air purifier in a Bridgeport classroom.jpg
Hilary McDevitt
Photo provided by teacher
An air purifier in a classroom in Bridgeport

As recently as this week, Gov. Ned Lamont has said local school districts should cover the costs for air quality upgrades. Now his chief operating officer says an agreement is on the horizon.

For months, Gov. Ned Lamont has resisted calls from educators and local officials to help schools replace their outdated HVAC systems to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the classroom.

"Look, we can be helpful, but I really want the localities to take the lead on this. And I think they have the resources to do so," Lamont said during a recent interview.

That all changed Tuesday.

"The governor has asked us to look at this as an area — particularly in light of our improving budget situation that you are all very aware of — as an area that we may look to [and] want to prioritize. I think there's going to be agreement on that as an area that we may want to focus here," Josh Geballe, the governor's chief operating officer, told state legislators at a school construction meeting Tuesday.

The governor's change of heart when it comes to who will fund air quality upgrades in schools comes a day after our Accountability Project revealed that nearly a third of Connecticut school districts report not having enough money to upgrade the air quality in their schools. One out of every 5 schools also does not have a program to evaluate the air quality in their buildings.

It also comes as bipartisan support builds for the state to pay for air ventilation upgrades.

"We have to do something. We know we have to do something. How we pay for it is another conversation," said state Sen. Doug McCrory (D-Hartford).

He has firsthand experience about just how bad air quality in schools can get.

"I myself worked in a school, and it was called the school of death because so many people left out that school when they retired had cancer. There's a few schools that had absolutely no windows [and] the HVAC system clearly was an issue," he said.

State Rep. Holly Cheeseman (R-East Lyme) said: "I think that's definitely an option for those existing schools who need those more modern HVAC systems. I would love to, if we want to put a bill together, sign on to something like that ... to make this possible and a priority."

The governor can get funding to districts quickly by using some of the remaining COVID relief funds to pay for the upgrades, or wait for state lawmakers to budget funding during the upcoming legislative session.