Stamford schools to spend $12M of COVID relief funds on 23 air quality projects

A worker finishes installing an outdoor air system at Westover Elementary School in Stamford, Conn., on Friday August 27, 2021.

A worker finishes installing an outdoor air system at Westover Elementary School in Stamford, Conn., on Friday August 27, 2021.

Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticut Media file photo

STAMFORD — About $12 million of the COVID-19 relief funds sent to Stamford schools will go toward ventilation projects.

Kevin McCarthy, director of facilities operations, told Board of Education members last week that the school district has identified 23 air quality projects to tackle.

Some $10.5 million for the projects will come mostly from the third installment of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, also known as ESSER III.

The other $1.5 million will come from the second installment of ESSER, which was a $14.5 million allotment in relief funds, and runs out in September of 2023.

Stamford schools received $32.6 million in ESSER III money that must be spent by September 2024.

Among the acceptable uses of the funds is improving ventilation at schools.

The work will be divided into four different categories: piping, automation and ventilation, equipment replacement and duct cleaning

McCarthy said during a meeting of the board’s Operations Committee that water pipes in many of the school buildings need balanced or rebalanced or the pipes have an obstruction that needs cleaned out.

One project at Toquam, which is on the list of buildings to be eventually closed by the district, is to correct air flow issues.

“There’s a handful of units at Toquam that, when they’re turned on to provide fresh air, due to a flow issue in the piping, we’re not adequately heating or cooling that temperature when it comes out of the unit,” McCarthy said. “So if it’s 30 degrees outside ... we can only get that air tempered to 55, 60 degrees where it theoretically should be 68 to 72.”

Duct cleaning will take place at Northeast Elementary School, Roxbury Elementary School, Newfield Elementary School and Turn of River Middle School.

McCarthy described such cleaning work as “phase one.”

“We envision doing hopefully three phases throughout the district to hit on every large major fresh air unit that provides ventilation to spaces,” he said, adding that such projects are a continuation of the work done by the Mold Task Force, which was created in 2018 in response to the discovery of extensive mold in school buildings.

Other projects include improving automation at Stark, Davenport Ridge and Stillmeadow elementary schools to better control the heating and cooling of those buildings, as well as replacing equipment at Rippowam Middle School.

Board member Ben Lee, who is also the chair of the committee, asked about the history of cleaning ducts in Stamford schools.

“Dare we ask how long it’s been since Turn of River had its ducts cleaned?” he asked. “How much of this is deferred maintenance that has been difficult to find funding for?”

After McCarthy said he has never seen funding allocated for such cleaning, Lee said he supported the work.

“It taxes the system more when it’s pushing air through a dirty duct,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing that’s not mold necessarily, but that’s when allergens linger in the air.”

McCarthy said school HVAC stuff does regular cleaning of coils inside rooftop units, but the duct cleaning the district is looking to do is a lot more involved.

“You’re physically cutting holes in the duct work every 10 to 12 feet so that you can get your shoulders and your head up there with a vacuum and a long pole to make sure you scrub all four sides of the duct,” he said.

Stamford schools have received federal stimulus funds in four different installments.

About $2.7 million was awarded soon after the pandemic began in 2020 and was used on personal protective equipment, learning supplies, part-time custodians, distance learning software and other expenditures. That money was the first installment of ESSER.

In late 2020, the district received another $5.3 million through the Coronavirus Relief Fund, and that money was used on the same expenses as the first ESSER payment, plus some HVAC repairs, sanitizing of buses and special education evaluations. Last year, Stamford received another $14.5 from the second wave of ESSER funds.