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Francis Koster: Will Rowan-Salisbury Schools seize funding opportunity?

By Francis Koster

COVID-19 has created an opportunity for the Rowan-Salisbury School System to get federal funding to renovate their aging buildings. No match required.   

Since the epidemic began, Rowan County has seen almost 17,000 reported cases of COVID-19. About 1,700 of those will suffer long-term effects lasting eight months or more. It has claimed the lives of 305 of our neighbors. Schools shut down to protect our kids, and are beginning to re-open. This is challenging because the newer kinds of COVID-19 are more infectious to kids than last year’s version.

There are a number of steps that can be taken to protect the kids, and those they love (and could infect at home). High on the list of good things to do is to get them lots of fresh air when they go to school. It turns out that the federal government COVID stimulus funds will pay for it! 

 And we can get a two-fer.

Back in April 2020, the Post published a column in which I reported: “One in five Americans either work in, or attend, a K-12 school … One-half of all of America’s K-12 schools are over 45 years old. Many others have obsolete air conditioning systems … these schools usually have indoor air quality problems … and lower student learning…one or two letter grades”. I also predicted that Congress would pass federal funding to help our economy recover and that some of that would likely be able to help schools.

Some people may be surprised to learn that this federal money, if invested well in our local schools, could pay a handsome rate of return. It is well known that schools with old air conditioning systems have higher rates of student and teacher illness. North Carolina requires that each child attend school for 185 days for a school system to get state funding for instruction. For every child that misses too many days of school a year, the school system loses the state contribution. And if a teacher gets sick and a temporary teacher has to be hired, that doubles cost of instruction. 

All of these financial problems can be reduced if the school has an air conditioning system that brings in enough healthy outside air instead of having students breathing and re-breathing the same stale COVID-19 contaminated air all day long.  

A significant percentage of the roughly 19,000 students in Rowan-Salisbury Schools go to school buildings with obsolete air conditioning and little or no ability to bring in fresh air.

Just as I predicted a year ago, the United States Congress has now passed, and the president has signed, three economic stimulus bills. An impressive amount of that money is headed our way.

Using some of the COVID-19 funding to bring healthy air into our schools will not only protect students from infection; it will help improve student learning one or two letter grades, help more students get scholarships or qualify for admission to college and raise the school system’s statewide ranking, which in turn will raise property values for everyone.

COVID-19 has caused massive suffering. A year ago, I predicted that Rowan County had a crisis coming that could be turned into an opportunity. Now the question is whether we as a community will seize it.

Koster, who lives in Kannapolis, spent most of his career as chief innovation officer in one of the nation’s largest pediatric health care systems.

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