Updated HVAC Systems Important for Healthy, Equitable, and Sustainable Learning Environments

By: Lucy Walker, Policy Intern

A recent report from the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and UndauntedK12 advocates for updating HVAC technology in K-12 schools, both to advance the health and well-being of students and to take advantage of the environmental and financial benefits of these electric, high-performance systems.

An estimated 41% of school districts needed updates in their HVAC systems. Many schools currently use outdated systems that burn fossil fuels on-site, making them a significant source of emissions. According to RMI research, “the HVAC systems currently installed in schools result in carbon emissions imposing an estimated $2 billion a year in societal costs.”

The best way to reduce this cost is for schools to switch over to electric systems that are more environmentally and economically efficient. Electric HVACs adapt to cooling needs, improve air quality by eliminating combustion pollution, enhance efficiency, and build energy resilience, among other benefits. Further, as extreme weather conditions become more commonplace, schools must invest in systems that are more resilient and adaptable to intense external climatic conditions.

Electric, high-performance HVAC systems can also help ensure a healthier and safer learning environment for students, and the report notes the significant body of evidence linking student health and learning to temperature, humidity, and air quality.

The negative consequences of outdated systems, such as asthma, increased student absences, and poor academic performance, disproportionately affect students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, and students in rural areas — all of whom have an increased likelihood of attending schools suffering from a lack of investment.

“Stark inequities in the condition of school facilities from chronic underinvestment in low-income communities and communities of color make it even more urgent that these schools can access these technologies,” states the report.

Updating existing systems is easier said than done, but the report seeks to educate leaders on the many benefits of modern HVAC equipment and its role in equitable and sustainable schools. By offering a set of specific and practical recommendations to key stakeholder groups, including policymakers, school districts, and advocates, the report also serves as a framework for implementation.

Decisions about school ventilation, heating, and cooling not only have implications for the health and education of students — they also impact national energy usage, school costs, and society at large.

In addition to the critical need for new systems in schools across the country, this is also a “generational opportunity” to make these investments thanks to new funding opportunities, including the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.