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COVID Prompts HVAC Improvements in Massachusetts Schools

With new state funding available to districts that were disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, schools are upgrading to environmentally efficient heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems.

HVAC system on the ceiling
(TNS) — When the pandemic hit three years ago, keeping students as safe as possible from viruses meant thinking about how air flows inside old and new buildings.

In Amherst, the school district installed equipment that traps and removes pathogens.

“The air quality is even better than outside air, because it filters out dust, pollution and other things,” said Rupert Roy-Clark, facilities director for Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools.

Amherst wasn’t alone in moving to safeguard students and staff.

Amherst-Pelham, West Springfield, Greenfield and Springfield public school districts — among others — all took early steps to upgrade heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems.

Now, with new state funding available to districts deemed to have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, officials are tackling further improvements. The goal: Create healthy learning environments by dealing with outdated air-quality systems.

In September, the former Gov. Charlie Baker announced a $100 million grant for improvements through 2027, using American Rescue Plan Act money.

More than 20 school districts became eligible to apply. The grants target schools with high concentrations of economically disadvantaged students and second-language learners, as well as those with high rates of absenteeism during the pandemic. The money is being made available through a formula to ensure the highest-need districts receive the largest portion of funding.

School districts were encouraged to focus on environmentally efficient heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems and air quality technology when planning upgrades consistent with former Gov. Charlie Baker’s 2050 net zero pledge.

The money can be spent on figuring out what’s needed to improve air quality, shaping designs and handling construction.

Senate President Karen E. Spilka said in September that the Legislature has worked to help districts make schools safe for all.

“By providing funding for HVACs through 2027, our hope is to support public health and education initiatives by giving schools the state-of-the-art air filtration systems they need and deserve,” Spilka said in a statement.


The town of West Springfield won grant funding in December. The school committee voted at a January meeting to invest $1 million in “chiller” system upgrades for air-conditioning for the West Springfield Middle School.

The upgrade will replace a 20-year-old rooftop unit with a central chiller system and will cover the $150,000 cost of removing an oil tank.

West Springfield interim Assistant Superintendent Neil Gile said the work represents the last big expense at the middle school.

Robert Mancini, a West Springfield School Committee member, said he was all for upgrading the chiller system. Mancini said the old unit caused roof leaks.

Ben Paquette, director of central maintenance, said that during the pandemic, the district hired a consultant to study the rate of air change per hour in local schools. Air change per hour is important in determining if a space is getting adequate ventilation. Improper ventilation can lead to a buildup of pollutants.

“Air purifiers were bought and deployed,” Paquette said. “All [of] the older elementary schools were retrofitted way before COVID-19 with unit ventilators.


In a January meeting, the Springfield school committee approved spending $6,280,294 from the state grant.

Earlier, building ventilation upgrades were made during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At that time, Patrick A. Roach, the system’s chief financial and operations officer, reviewed all of the district’s heating systems.

Roach said the district had been planning to use state pandemic relief money to upgrade the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system at the Samuel Bowles Elementary School, and other school buildings in the district.

The state grant enables Springfield schools to stay above the “ashtray standards,” Mayor Domenic Sarno said.

Samuel Bowles Elementary School was already on the district’s repair list — and a good candidate for the grant, Roach said.

According to Azell Cavaan, spokesperson for Springfield Public Schools, the work includes demolition of existing heating and ventilation equipment, including boilers, piping, unit ventilators and air handlers that are original to the building.

She said the work will bring all spaces up to current standards. The change will convert heating from steam to circulating hot water. The building’s “envelope” will be sealed to promote energy conservation.


Carole Collins, director of energy and sustainability for the city of Greenfield, said the district’s goal is to get rid of and eliminate fossil fuel use to improve air quality.

“Improved air quality impacts the classroom space for student and staffs,” Collins said. “They are healthier and happier because it is more comfortable and when it is more comfortable, people perform better.”

In 2015, the new $43.9 million Greenfield High School building opened with an all-new system.

“Greenfield High School has a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (a worldwide green building certification program) gold certificate,” Collins said. “We are very proud of that.”

In addition, the Greenfield Middle School was already upgraded with a high-efficiency heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system. To upgrade that would mean replacing the gas heat and hot water system with a geothermal heat pump.


In Amherst, all school buildings use “smart” air handlers installed near the beginning of pandemic.

Now, the district is working to address other building upgrades, he added. “The next step is to get a clear picture of where to go and how to get there,” said Roy-Clark, the facilities director. “Students and staff are safe in the meantime.”

A new elementary school building is to open in the fall of 2026, merging the Wildwood and Fort River elementary schools.

Roy-Clark said the new building, for 575 students in grades K-5, is being designed with Amherst’s net zero bylaw in mind. The construction will use ground source heat pump technology.

Roy-Clark said the district had not yet applied for funding through the state, but has not ruled it out.

“The district is complicated as it has seven schools in six buildings and three organizations,” Roy-Clark said. “Amherst is in the process of combining two school building in one. We do not want to do a total replacement to a building that is going to be torn down in a few years.”

“We are trying to be responsible to the needs of the students but also to the taxpayer,” he said. “We don’t want to spend more on emergency repair because of ineffective equipment.”

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